‘Religious Freedom’ Means Trans Students Still Face Threats of Expulsion

LGBTQ students across Australia were promised protection from discrimination at school. Only some of them will get it.
People at Protest
Getty Image / Spencer Platt

Transgender students across Australia were offered renewed cause for concern on Tuesday, when it was confirmed that a handful of amendments planned for the Sex Discrimination Act would not be extended to protect them from school expulsion on the basis of their gender.

One of the Morrison government’s most senior ministers, Finance Minister and Senate leader Simon Birmingham, told the ABC’s Radio National that trans students would have to sit tight in the face of persecution at school for at least another 12 months while the government tries to rush ahead with the Religious Discrimination Bill ahead of May’s federal election. 

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Now, trans students find themselves at the centre of a debate they didn’t ask for, vulnerable to institutional discrimination in the absence of basic protections they’ve been promised for close to five years. 

In its current shape, the Religious Discrimination Bill would carve out amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act that move to stop schools expelling students on the basis of their sexuality. But, Birmingham said, current laws that allow schools to expel trans students will, in the meantime, face a year-long review at the Australian Law Reform Commission.

“I understand the proposal that is put forward is to repeal the exemption as it relates to students being exempted from the sex discrimination act on the basis of their sexual orientation,” Birmingham said. “But it doesn’t go further than that.”

“Those other matters as I understand it would still be subject to a relatively quick – within 12 months – review by the [ALRC] to try to address the best way to enact other changes without undermining certain issues around same-sex schools or other matters,” he said.

The Religious Discrimination Bill has in recent months come to expose a grab-bag of cultural fractures in Australian politics – reframing the influence with which Christian lobby groups have come to bend the Morrison government at will. As a result, more moderate members of the Coalition’s Liberal Party outfit have grown unsettled.

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Just last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced a full-frontal attack from Christian groups who bluntly accused Morrison of “betraying” the motives of the Religious Discrimination Act when he outlined his government’s intentions to include an amendment that would block the expulsion of students based on their sexuality and gender.

“My kids go to a Christian school, I wouldn’t want my school doing that either,” Morrison told B105.3 radio last Thursday.

“The bill we’re going to be taking through the parliament, we will have an amendment that will deal with that to ensure kids cannot be discriminated against on that basis. I’ve been saying that for years. That’s always been my view.”

It’s a move that was largely read as an effort to distance himself from the drama and outrage that swept Australian politics after a Brisbane Christian School was reported to have asked families to sign an anti-gay and anti-trans enrolment contract. 

The contracts were later withdrawn, but Morrison’s announcement prompted outrage among Christian groups en masse, symbolised by a bootleg threat made by one of the faction’s more vocal groups, FamilyVoice.

Greg Bondar, a spokesperson for the group, told The Guardian last week that “Morrison has fallen into the same trap as Bill Shorten in 2019, ignoring the voice of the Christian community.”

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The Morrison government kneeled to the threats and walked back language on amendments that address trans expulsion on Tuesday, a full U-Turn on earlier pledges to change the law to ban religious schools from expelling students on the basis of their sexuality or gender, dating all the way back to 2018.

Morrison’s flip-flop has given rise to a chorus of bi-partisan criticism, the roots of which trace back to threats made by some of the Prime Minister’s own backbenchers. 

On Sunday, Liberal MP Bridget Archer said one clause woven into the Bill, the “statement of belief” clause, would be enough for her to cross the floor on the vote, backing Morrison into a corner where he would need Labor’s support in order for the Bill to pass.

Others have taken a softer approach to standing in opposition to the Bill. The Age reported on Sunday that Queensland Liberal, Warren Entsch, took issue with that very same clause. But for Entsch, it’s former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, not Morrison, who should be lashed for opening the door to religious freedom debate to begin with.

These inner-party splinters are set to come to the fore again on Tuesday afternoon, when the Bill returns to parliament for a vote that will probably need the backing of Labor’s conservative outliers to get it across the line. 

Trans students across the country, meanwhile, will be left to fend for themselves for at least another year, vulnerable to institutional discrimination and abuse, while conversations about their welfare become a political play-thing held hostage by hardline Christian lobbyists.

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