In the latest challenge for Christian schools, Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to review the religious exemptions for schools in the Sex Discrimination Act.
The Labor government wants to stop schools discriminating against staff and students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and marital or relationship status.
Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Martyn Iles told Vision Radio it’s a worrying development.
“The reason these changes to the Sex Discrimination Act are challenging is because they are going to take away Christian schools’ freedoms to operate according to their values and ethos in all likelihood. The government has written to the Law Reform Commission and they’ve said, look, we want you to write us a report about how we should change these laws, but we want your report to ensure certain things — that there’s non-discrimination against students, against teachers, and the only exception they’ve allowed is to say, look, we’re willing to consider the right of a Christian school to prefer a staff member for employment who identifies as the same religion.”
But Mr. Iles explained that it in reality that is no concession at all:
“The problem we have is that people show up and they say, you know, I’m a Presbyterian, I’ve been a Presbyterian all my life, and I go to a Presbyterian church once a month and I believe in the Presbyterian creeds. But of course, they might be in a same sex relationship, or they might teach political ideologies that are opposed to the Christian faith, or they might do other things that are inconsistent with Christian values. So the school turns around and says to that staff member, ‘Hey, you’re out of line. We need to do something about this.’ The staff member will say, ‘You’re discriminating against me on the basis of my sexual orientation or my transgender identity or my political persuasion, because I identify as a Presbyterian. And so my religion is the same as yours.’ That’s the legal hole schools are going to find themselves in based on the terms of reference here.”
The proposed new laws are not expected to be tabled before mid-next year.
The review will be headed by Justice Stephen Rothman AM of the NSW Supreme Court and a former president of the Great Synagogue.
The Guardian reports he made headlines ahead of the marriage equality plebiscite by announcing he would be voting yes because he considered it an issue that affects society and civil law, not religion.
New discrimination laws impacting on Christian schools are also being considered in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Martyn Iles says it’s “a tough time to be a Christian school. Really challenging headwinds coming in terms of proposed changes to the laws. And this is something that we’re going to really engage heavily on. I know the Christian schools’ organisations will engage heavily on it and I just encourage people to be aware of this. We don’t want to see Christian schooling go the way of the dinosaur in our generation.”