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Religious exemptions in discrimination laws

Across Australia, states and territories provide religious schools and other faith-based institutions with exemptions from discrimination laws.

In the case of schools, these exemptions allow the institutions to discriminate against teachers, staff and students in ways that aren’t acceptable in the state school system. In many cases, such discrimination includes the firing staff or other disciplinary action for perceived breaches of the institution’s religious ethos.

What’s the problem?

We accept the argument that faith-based institutions need to employ people to certain positions that have a genuine occupational requirement for adherence to the religious beliefs of the institution. In particular, this would include people who are charged with teaching the tenets of the particular faith. 

But many of these institutions claim to have a blanket right to discriminate. As a result, Australians are fired or face disciplinary action simply for, among other reasons, their sexual or gender status, having experienced a breakdown or divorce in their marriage, having accessed IVF treatment or having fallen pregnant outside wedlock. It’s particularly problematic given the large size of the faith-based education sector and the amount of taxpayer funding it receives.

It is clear: Religious exemptions harm and hurt many Australians

In a survey of almost 1,150 Independent Education Union (IEU) members working in faith-based schools in Victoria and Tasmania, 51% of respondents reported having witnessed or been subjected to discrimination based on marital, relationship or parental status.

The IEU has also detailed a number of case studies of such discrimination (see from page 13 of this submission). These included:

A male teacher applied for a promotional position but was advised that he wouldn’t be considered as he had some years before been in a defacto relationship with a woman for 10 years and had children “out of wedlock”.

A teacher employed by a Catholic diocesan school was dismissed as a consequence of becoming pregnant via IVF.

A teacher at my school didn’t get her contract renewed because she had a baby with her female partner, a teacher got vilified because she and her partner had a baby out of wedlock, and I know of a teacher who is privately undergoing IVF treatments and hasn’t told leadership for fear they will lose their job.

A teacher in a western NSW Catholic diocesan school was threatened with termination due to ‘non-recognised marriage’. The teacher’s husband had been previously married. The employer was insisting that the husband had his marriage annulled…

I have to keep my sexuality a secret as I fear I would be fired or targeted by leadership at my school. I understand they have a right to their faith, but it feels awful having to hide who I am.

Calls are now growing around the states for such religious exemptions from discrimination laws be removed, especially in relation to LGBTI people. We know that some state governments are actively looking at the issue:

  • In South Australia, the Marshall government proposed to remove religious exemptions.
  • In Western Australia, the McGowan government is considering the exemptions as part of a review of the state’s Equal Opportunity Act.
  • In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it would remove religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

At the federal level, there was a public backlash about religious exemptions in 2018. Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to act swiftly and protect LGBTI students in religious schools by making amendments to the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984. Labor, too, wanted the religious exemptions removed for both students and teachers. Yet, nothing has happened in the federal parliament. 

What we're doing

We’ll be doing all we can to raise public awareness of how religious exemptions harm and hurt many Australians. And we’ll be making sure elected representatives know it. That includes writing to leaders of governments and oppositions, and minor parties.

We’ll also be seeking meetings with members of parliament and making submissions to parliamentary inquiries. 

With your help, we will spend some of our funds on implementing an advertising campaign to share this message on social media.

What you can do

You can help us to make an impact by making a donation to our RSA Fighting Fund. Every dollar will help to build public awareness and ignite a movement at the grassroots level to achieve change. 

You can also contact your state/territory or federal member of parliament to urge them to remove religious exemptions that allow for this discrimination to continue.

You can help spread the word on social media by sharing our campaign images (see above) with your friends on social media.

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