In December 2018, Senator Penny Wong proposed a Bill to the Federal Parliament that would remove the current exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act that allow religious bodies to operate with reference to their religious tenets in respect to both student enrolment and the employment conditions of staff. The wording of the bill was potentially open to broad interpretation and could be used to restrict the content of all religious instruction – including that delivered within a church, mosque or synagogue, in the context of a sermon or Sunday-school teaching, for example – to viewpoints that are state-sanctioned.
The problem has arisen through a quirk in Australian law that regards all forms of differentiation as discrimination. In international law, ‘discrimination’ refers only to unjustifiable discrimination. Differentiation that is needed for obvious reasons – for example, ensuring the old age pension is available only to those above a certain age or stipulating that Papal candidates should at least be Catholic – is not regarded as discrimination at all. Not so in Australia, where wide definitions of discrimination are applied to ban all sorts of behaviour to which certain exceptions are then applied. At the moment, there are no positive protections for religious schools in Australian law, which rely on exemptions to discrimination law to operate as they do.
Contrary to the claims of Senator Wong and her supporters, children are not being expelled from religious schools because of same-sex attraction. What these exemptions do is enable religious schools to require students and staff to uphold the religious ethos of the school. This provides schools with the means to discourage students or teachers who would wish to use the school as a platform for activism on issues that contradict the religious purposes for which the school is founded.
Particularly in Labor-led states, LGBT activists agitate for ever more comprehensive sexuality education, the “whole of school approach” to shoehorning sexual diversity in every school subject and the promotion of gender fluidity to children throughout the state school system. Independent schools (most of which have some religious foundation) are needed more than ever as a haven for parents who wish to make a different choice.
The Australian Christian Lobby submitted that the exemptions should remain, at least until more adequate positive protections for religious freedom have been passed into law.
On the basis of this submission, the ACL was invited to appear before the Senate Committee and the hearing in Sydney on Thursday 7th February. The Committee was due to report on Tuesday 11th February.