Law Reform Commission head “surprised” by religious schools’ claims over exemptions issue

Si Gladman / 28 June 2024

Religious schools failed to provide evidence of how their operations in jurisdictions without exemptions to anti-discrimination laws have been negatively affected, the head of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has said.

In an interview on ABC Radio program Law Report (listen from 17:20 mark) earlier this week, the ALRC’s president, Justice Mordecai Bromberg, said he was surprised by claims that religious schools would cease to exist if the Albanese government adopted the commission’s recommendations.

Earlier this year, the ALRC handed down its report following an inquiry into the religious exemptions in federal laws that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ students and teachers.

Faith-based education providers have criticised the ALRC’s proposed reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act and Fair Work Act to prevent students and staff being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

In March, three Christian schools associations responded to the report by labelling it a “direct attack on faith” and warning that faith schools would “cease to exist”. In recent weeks, Catholic leaders have even suggested that they could consider closing their schools – such as happened in the 1962 Goulburn school strike – if the government removed their ability to employ staff according to their religious ethos.

In the ABC interview, Justice Bromberg (pictured) said faith schools already operate schools in a number of states and territories that do not allow them to exercise such exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.


“The idea that religious schools will cease to exist is quite surprising. The exemptions that we’ve been talking about do not currently exist in a range of places,” he said.

“There was no evidence that religious schools or institutions were affected by the removal of those exemptions. And we asked for it. We did ask for evidence of that kind – if it was available – and nothing came forward.”

The ALRC’s report says:

“In the majority of Australian states and territories it is therefore already unlawful for religious educational institutions to directly or indirectly discriminate against a student on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, or pregnancy.”

Political progress has stalled on this issue, with the Albanese government vowing it will only move forward if it gains bipartisan support from the Coalition for its draft legislation addressing the exemptions issue.

On Christian Vision radio program 20Twenty this week, opposition spokesperson Michaelia Cash said the government’s draft legislation demonstrated its preparedness to “compromise faith communities”.

Justice Bromberg expressed disappointment that the issue had stalled at federal level.

“It is the current state of play, unfortunately, I think. It would be nice if we had a decision one way or another.”

In the 50-year history of the ALRC, governments have approved about 85 per cent of recommendations made from 90 inquiries, he said.

Si Gladman is Executive Director of the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

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