Last year, in the wake of Australia’s widely celebrated same-sex marriage victory, the federal government commissioned a review into religious freedom. The fear of many conservative MPs and religious leaders was, generally speaking, that their right to freely practise their religion in Australia might be imperilled by shifting national attitudes toward the LGBQTI+ community.
Four months since it was submitted to the Coalition, the report is still being kept quite firmly under wraps—but Fairfax Media has seen and reported on a number of its proposed amendments to anti-discrimination laws. Among them: granting religious schools the right to turn away gay students and teachers.
The review—chaired by former attorney general Phillip Ruddock—reportedly calls for changes to the federal Sex Discrimination Act: which currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This amendment would effectively give schools the right to act out their “religious freedom” by allowing them to openly discriminate against gay students and staff, simply because they don't align with certain tenets of the faith.
“There is a wide variety of religious schools in Australia and...to some school communities, cultivating an environment and ethos which conforms to their religious beliefs is of paramount importance,” the report states.
“To the extent that this can be done in the context of appropriate safeguards for the rights and mental health of the child, the panel accepts their right to select, or preference, students who uphold the religious convictions of that school community.”
These changes would only apply to new enrolments, and the schools in question would be required to have a publicly available policy outline and view the best interests of the child as the “primary consideration of its conduct,” the report adds. It was also stated that there was no justification for a school to discriminate on the basis of race, disability, or intersex status.
"We will protect religious freedom, and get the balance right," said Prime Minister Scott Morrison—a vocal advocate of religious freedom who voted strongly against same-sex marriage—in a statement on Wednesday morning. "Each proposal will be considered carefully and respectfully before any final decisions are taken."
The religious freedom review received more than 15,000 submissions, and is still being debated by cabinet.