Australian plan to protect religious freedom stirs debate

Proposed law would mean non-state schools retain right to ban gay students and teachers

A proposed law to prevent religious discrimination in Australia has prompted heated debate about whether religious schools should be allowed to ban gay students and teachers.

The legislation, due to be introduced by the ruling coalition later this year, follows a recent inquiry into religious freedoms. The inquiry's findings were not publicly released, but it reportedly proposed legislation which would ensure that non-state schools retain their right to ban gay students and teachers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a staunch Christian and social conservative, initially refused to say whether he backed such a ban. But he later said he would change the law to ensure that schools could not reject gay students.

"I don't think if someone's at a school, they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group," he told Sky News.

The issue has sparked fierce debate. The opposition Labor party has rejected any move that allows schools to discriminate against gay students or teachers. "We accept that religious schools are able to teach the tenets of their faith," Labor's deputy leader Tanya Plibersek told ABC News on Thursday. "What doesn't make sense to us is that whole classes of people should therefore be discriminated against."

But several religious groups have urged the government to let them maintain their values when employing staff or selecting students.

"If freedom of religion is to remain a legitimate hallmark of Australian education, then the rights of school communities to operate in accordance with religious beliefs must be upheld," said Christian Schools Australia and Adventist Schools Australia in a joint submission to the government's review.

NOT RIGHT TO BAN GAY STUDENTS

I don't think if someone's at a school, they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group.

AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON, a staunch Christian and social conservative, who said he would change the law to ensure that schools could not reject gay students.


UPHOLD RELIGIOUS RIGHTS

If freedom of religion is to remain a legitimate hallmark of Australian education, then the rights of school communities to operate in accordance with religious beliefs must be upheld.

CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS AUSTRALIA AND ADVENTIST SCHOOLS AUSTRALIA, in a joint submission to the government for its inquiry into religious freedoms.

Australia's population has become increasingly less religious in recent years. According to the most recent census in 2016, 30 per cent of the population had no religion, compared with 17 per cent in 1996. About 52 per cent belonged to a Christian religion in 2016, compared with 88 per cent in 1996.

But the ruling coalition came under pressure to bolster religious protections following the legalisation of same-sex marriage late last year. This followed a national vote last November, in which 62 per cent of people supported same-sex marriage and 38 per cent opposed the change.

But religious organisations and some conservative MPs objected to the change and expressed concerns that it would affect religious freedoms. The government then ordered the inquiry, which received about 16,000 public submissions.

The inquiry's most contentious proposal was the call to allow religious schools to discriminate.

 

Many schools in Australia are run by the Catholic Church and other religious organisations. Last year, 3.85 million students were enrolled in 9,444 schools across the country. Of these students, about 66 per cent were at state schools, 20 per cent at Catholic-run schools and the remainder at non-state schools, some of which are run by religious organisations, including Muslim, Christian and Jewish schools.

Different states in Australia have different rules for gay students and teachers. In Tasmania, all discrimination is barred, whereas non-state schools in New South Wales can choose to bar students and teachers.

Many teachers in religious schools who are gay say they do not admit their sexuality. "From the talk in the staff room, it's clear that is unacceptable," a teacher at an Islamic school in Melbourne, who did not want to be named, told SBS News.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said on Thursday that he wanted to find a compromise law by the end of the year. "What we're trying to do is… allow some reasonable ability for schools and religious schools to keep order and rules in their schools," he told 6PR Radio.

But some political analysts said the heated debate - which has pitted religious groups against the gay community - could have been avoided if the coalition had released the report by the religious freedom inquiry. The report, which could help to inform the public debate, was completed months ago.

Professor John Warhurst from the Australian National University said the government had wanted to control the debate and to delay releasing the report until it had addressed its own internal division between conservatives and liberals.

"The LGBTIQ community, the subject of much of the debate, must feel carried along helplessly... fearing they would be at risk from the political machinations over freedom of religion," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer individuals.

"The religious communities have felt drawn to publicly correct the damage done to their reputations by an under-informed debate framed as secular Australia versus religious Australia."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2018, with the headline 'Australian plan to protect religious freedom stirs debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe