Scott Morrison’s cabinet must decide on a proposal for a Religious Discrimination Act, but face a damaging backlash ahead of the crucial Wentworth by-election following disputed claims schools could be handed new powers to turn away gay students. The proposed legislation, a key recommendation in the Ruddock review of religious freedom, is viewed within the Morrison government as a way to end Coalition infighting and allay fears among religious groups following the divisive same-sex marriage debate. Liberal MPs who backed same-sex marriage including Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson and Dean Smith, have indicated they are open to a Religious Discrimination Act so long as the measure is not seen as the introduction of a bill of rights by stealth.
“This approach is consistent with the opportunity identified by the Senate committee into marriage equality, which said that a religious protection in federal law should be examined,” Senator Smith said. Senior government ministers have said they believed it “very likely” the proposal for a new religious discrimination act would be endorsed by cabinet, although the issue is not yet on the agenda for discussion. Support for the shake-up was jeopardised following a backlash over suggestions the review led by Philip Ruddock would hand new powers to faith-based schools, allowing them to discriminate against homosexual students and teachers on religious grounds.
The Liberal candidate in the by-election, Dave Sharma, has distanced himself from the debate and declared he was “opposed to any new measures that impose forms of discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation”. Wentworth, vacated by Malcolm Turnbull, is home to one of the largest LGBTI communities in Australia and returned a 80.8% “Yes” vote for same-sex marriage in last year’s postal plebiscite. Mr Sharma is facing a challenge for the seat from prominent independent candidate and LGBTI advocate Kerryn Phelps, who has a strong following in the electorate. If the Coalition loses Wentworth, it would be forced into minority government.
Bill Shorten railed against the suggestion that faith-based schools would be given new powers to discriminate against students, a false claim reported in Fairfax Media. The Opposition Leader called on the government to rule out “creating new laws to discriminate against kids in education”. Attorney-General Christian Porter clarified that the exemptions allowing religious schools to refuse gay students and teachers already existed in carve-outs to the Sex Discrimination Act and were extended by Labor under Julia Gillard in 2013. They were not recommendations stemming from the Ruddock review.
“Bill Shorten saying that he opposes the religious schools making decisions about employment and student admissions consistent with their religion ignores the fact that those exemptions were introduced by Labor in 2013,” Mr Porter said. “Bill Shorten is either shockingly ignorant of laws that he created or terribly hypocritical in his desperation to score a political point”. Under the current law there are listed exemptions that apply to “educational institutions established for religious purposes”. They allow religious schools to discriminate against students and teachers in accordance with their religious doctrines. Similar exemptions exist in ACT, NSW and WA law.
Responding to Fairfax reports that the Ruddock review would hand schools new powers to discriminate against homosexual students and teachers, the Prime Minister said: “That is the existing law. The report in the Sydney Morning Herald forgot to mention one critical factor: that the existing law enables schools to do exactly what was in that report,” he said. “So that’s not a change. That’s actually backing in an existing law. We’re not proposing to change that law to take away that existing arrangement that exists.” The Ruddock review sought to trim back the exemptions allowing schools to discriminate against gay students and teachers.
“To the extent that some jurisdictions do not currently allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender characteristics, the panel sees no need to introduce such provisions,” it said. “Very few religious schools or organisations submitted that this was necessary. To the extent however that certain jurisdictions including the commonwealth do allow this type of discrimination, the panel believes the exceptions should be limited by the requirement that the discrimination be in accordance with a published policy which is grounded in the religious doctrines of the school”.
Mr Ruddock told The Australian the review’s recommendations were aimed at “restricting” the ability of schools in the ACT, NSW and WA to reject homosexual staff and students. “It essentially deals with those students who might be disciplined where they are facing gender challenges and to make it clear that if any such actions are to occur it has to be dealt with in contractual arrangements before the student is enrolled,” Mr Ruddock said. “And the schools have to make it very clear that it’s part of their established ethos. It is restricting in those states where it is permitted”.
Source: Compiled by APN from media reports