Federal Government Placates Religious Zealots to the Detriment of LGBTQ Students

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Religious Zealots

Archconservative PM Anthony Albanese is continuing to do his utmost to out nasty his predecessors by following the conservative handbook originally written by them, as the Labor leader shirks on promised reforms to laws discriminating against LGBTQ students and teachers at religious schools.

Despite promising the changes prior to the 2022 election, and his government having tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission with reviewing the laws that also permit discrimination against women, the PM has developed cold feet since the inquiry recommended he action the reform.

When quizzed about the ALRC recommendations, Albanese explained on 22 March, that he wants to make the reforms at the same time as progressing a newly drafted Religious Discrimination Bill and he didn’t want to do this without “bipartisan support” to avoid “the culture wars”.

Yet, Albanese then suggested a few days later that he might be open to progressing the reforms with the support of the Greens, on the proviso that it too support greater protections for people of faith, after Labor MPs had queried their boss on whether the new laws would ever see light of day.

On the day prior to Good Friday, however, a group of religious leaders representing conservative factions within their organised religions, wrote to the PM warning him against collaborating with the Greens on any religious reforms, as they consider that party will generate unfavourable outcomes.

Faith leaders shun Greens

“We do not consider that any negotiation with the Greens will yield a result that provides any meaningful protections for religious freedom,” reads the letter that was cosigned by the archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne, along with a variety of Christian institutions.

“We expect that any proposal supported by the Greens will be unfavourable to faith communities,” continued the undersigned, which further included, the ABC reported, the United Shia Islamic Foundation, the Australian Jewish Organisation and the Hindu Council of Australia.

The fact that these organisations are flagging the Greens as problematic is a sign that the forces of faith pushing for greater religious protections are of the conservative ilk, as that political party is known for its progressive policies, which includes supporting marriage equality and trans rights.

The LGBTQ school discrimination law reform debate is caught up in a broader one around religious freedoms, which commenced towards the end of 2016, as the campaign for same-sex marriage picked up, and when that passed into law in December 2017, the Chrisitan Right bound into action.

And then treasurer soon-to-be-PM Scott Morrison took the helm, as he launched the religious freedoms campaign, which, early on, sparked widespread public awareness about the highly prejudicial system that permits religious schools to openly discriminate in law.

Revoking prejudice

Section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) permits religious educational institutions to discriminate against employees, contractors and students based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy”.

This means religious schools can refuse to hire or sack employees or contractors or refuse to enrol or expel students on the grounds of being gay or trans, as well as if they’re pregnant or in a relationship that doesn’t abide by the faith’s outlook. And these measures are forbidden all other schools.

The ALRC report is clear that section 38 should be revoked. Yet, Albanese doesn’t seem to want to appear too progressive and he’d now prefer the opposition, a party that had previously resisted the reform, to walk him across the line, in an effort to shore up his popularity and votes.

The other recommendation made is that religious educational institutions should be able to build “communities of faith” by giving preference, “in good faith”, to persons of the same religion in the selection of staff. And this is only “when reasonably necessary” to steer it in such a manner.

Greens Senator David Shoebridge told the ABC that his party wants to move ahead on revoking the biased school laws and his colleagues certainly want to progress religious vilification laws, despite any assertions made by the faith leaders.

Indeed, law experts all agree that religious discrimination laws are missing from federal law, as well as in NSW. However, over recent years, when legislation proposing to do this has showed up in both parliaments, the protections were accompanied by other laws framed more like religious liberties.

Morrison’s crusade

Then treasurer Morrison flagged legislating laws against religious discrimination, and in particular, that against Christians, in December 2017, straight after gay marriage had been passed: a vote which the politician himself exited the chamber for.

Then, as PM, he prioritised his Religious Discrimination Bill, with several versions released. The first contained a law permitting doctors to refuse services to women and queer people if it ruffled their sensibilities, while this was followed by another bizarrely released at the height of the bushfire crisis.

The final draft before parliament in February 2022 was a much watered-down version that made it through one house. But it was still divisive and five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to see it voted down.

The last moments of the debate saw it all boil down to Morrison, as, if he wanted to pass his laws, then the prejudicial school laws had to go, and the PM then agreed to ban the expelling of gay students but not trans kids, at which point the bill and the yearslong divisive debate were shelved.

But when Albanese said on 22 March he would action the recommendations of the ALHR report, with Dutton’s approval, he did add that he had a bill ready to progress those reforms, as well as another piece of legislation that contains religious discrimination measures awaiting introduction.

Attorney general Mark Dreyfus, however, had only just handed his counterpart in the Liberals, Michaela Cash, a copy of Labour’s Religious Discrimination Bill two days prior. And the Greens are yet to see it.

So, with faith leaders who don’t trust progressive pollies and the Christian Right on one side, and the Greens and queer rights advocates on the other, it’s clear whom full-steam-ahead AUKUS Albanese sides with, as his once hard left values disappear, and he continues his foray into the right.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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