Victoria could be the first Australian state to outlaw religious schools sacking gay and lesbian teachers or expelling LGBTI students, under proposed amendments to the state’s Equal Opportunities Act.
Greens Equality Spokesman Sam Hibbins is drafting a private member’s bill making it illegal for religious bodies and religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students or teachers based on their sexuality or gender identity (as well as their marital or parental status) by removing the schools’ right to claim religious exemptions under the 2010 Act.
“We’ve got a particular focus on schools because that’s where I think it will have the biggest impact,” Mr Hibbins said.
“Essentially religious bodies that run religious schools have a duty of care to their staff and students [and] by discriminating against them based on their sexual orientation and gender status they would be breaching that duty of care,” he said.
Discriminatory practices can include making it difficult for transgender students to transition. For example, by refusing to accept a student is transgender because it’s not backed up by a birth certificate, by strictly enforcing the school uniform or by banning transgender students from using particular toilets.
“If you put yourself in the shoes of students who are coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity that can often be a challenging time for that student. There’s a lot of fear of rejection from their peers and rejection or exclusion from their families or they won’t be supported by the school,” Mr Hibbins said.
“Somehow the school is giving an indication that being LGBTI is somehow wrong … the school has a duty of care to these students to support and protect them.”
Mr Hibbins said there was a strong link between levels of discrimination and bullying at school and poor mental health, as well as well-documented relatively high suicide rates of LGBTI youth.
He said it was also unacceptable to force teachers to be clandestine about their private lives. “This is sending a message to people: don’t ask, don’t tell and staff needing to hide their sexuality.”
But the Greens Bill has attracted heated opposition from some religious organisations.
Steven O’Doherty from Christian Schools Australia (CSA) called the Bill “a continuation of their [The Greens] long-standing attack on the right of parents to choose a religious education for their children”.
“Faith-based schools must have the ability to choose staff whose life choices are in keeping with the teachings of the faith,” Mr O’Doherty said.
“Faith is not only taught, it must be modelled. While we have not seen the Greens’ specific amendments, based on reports they would denude faith-based schools of the ability to choose staff whose lives are exemplars of the school’s values, beliefs and moral teachings. Reasonable Australians understand this makes a mockery of the idea of religious freedom,” he said.
Mr O’Doherty said the current exemption achieved the right balance of rights and freedoms in education.
“It allows schools to make reasonable and sensible decisions in keeping with the tenets of their faith. CSA does not support any changes to the current arrangements, whether by the Greens or Labor.
“Christian schools are supportive environments that take most seriously their pastoral care of all students, including those identifying as LGBTI.”
Asked if he would seek to expel LGBTI students Mr O’Doherty said: “CSA does not seek the right for schools to expel students for reason of their sexual preference or other gender-related issues. The expulsion of any student – any student – relates to their actions towards others as a contributing and supportive member of the school community. It only becomes an issue if their behaviour places them outside the school’s policies.”
Meanwhile, NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley wants to revert to the “inherent requirement test” which was introduced in 2010 (and rolled back in 2011), where schools were asked to justify each why they should be exempt from anti-discrimination laws on a case-by-case basis.
Labor believes this approach balances the importance of granting schools independence and religious freedom with having to provide a higher level of evidence as to why they should be allowed to discriminate.
It’s a concession that Mr Hibbins feels does not go far enough to improving the lives of LGBTI teachers or students.
He is now calling on the Labor Party and the Independent Education Union, which represents independent and religious schools, to get behind his bill and he will write to each of the state’s religious and independent schools asking whether they feel they need the religious exemptions provided under the current Equal Opportunities Act.
Mr Hibbins said he was hopeful Labor would get behind his Bill, particularly because the party have publicly declared that “equality is non-negotiable”.