The Attorney General Department’s submission to two parliamentary reviews of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 (the RD Bill) confirms that the legislation does not have any effect upon religious exemptions currently contained in federal law.
Section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) empowers religious educational institutions to sack or refuse to hire staff and contractors, as well as to expel or refuse students, based on their “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy”.
The submission further explains that proposed section 7 of the RD Bill considers religious bodies do not discriminate in any area of public life when acting in a manner otherwise considered as discrimination, when these actions are done in accordance with their faith doctrine.
Proposed section 11 of the third iteration of the RD Bill then goes on to confirm that religious schools may preference staff who adhere to the same faith outlook when employing people, irrespective of any state or territory laws to the contrary.
This effectively overrides a Victorian law passed only last month that specifically prevents religious schools from refusing to hire staff based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Expelling LGBTQ kids
Produced by current attorney general Michaela Cash’s office, the submission further confirms that religious exemptions within federal law will be reviewed by the Australian Law Reform Commission, yet it will not be delivering its final report until 12 months after the RD Bill is passed.
The reconsideration of the Sex Discrimination Act religious exemptions was part of the government’s response to the 2018 Ruddock religious freedoms review report, which was an inquiry established by then PM Malcolm Turnbull in the wake of the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
The Ruddock inquiry recommendations were leaked to the press in late 2018 prior to the release of the report, which led to public outrage over the exemptions. And newly-minted prime minister Scott Morrison then promised to revoke the law which permits religious schools to expel LGBTQ students.
Indeed, the year-long wait to see the ALRC report appears to contradict a deal the Coalition made with some of its own moderate MPs late last year that entailed their support for the RD Bill in exchange for the immediate revoking of the student exemption.
However, follwoing the internal deal being announced, religious groups, including Christian Schools Australia and the Australian Christian Lobby, threatened to withdraw their support for the RD Bill, unless they retain their ability to discriminate against LGBTQ students.
The religious right to discriminate
Pentecostal PM Morrison is a key member of the Christian Right. Not only did he abstain from taking part in the marriage equality vote, but, only weeks later, he appeared before the press outlining that he’d be prioritising the enactment of further religious exemptions in law.
So, it’s really no surprise that he’s stalled on revoking the ability of religious schools to expel students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And it can be assumed that holding one’s breath on the delivery of the ALRC report could prove fatal.
Morrison has made clear that he doesn’t consider Australia a secular nation, rather he regards it as a free one. And it would seem that this freedom is serving to provide him with the leeway to attempt the re-Christianisation of the public sphere via measures like the RD Bill.
And while critics of the legislation often point to the disconnect the laws have in relation to a growing nonreligious population, as well as an increasingly multifaith community, this is exactly why the PM wants to enact the new religious exemptions, as the Church is losing its majority grip.
Morrison wants to re-establish the central role of the establishment religion in public life – one that carries a repressive morality – whether that be via the suppression of divergent sexualities, the subjugation of women to men, or the undermining of faiths not adhering to the New Testament.