Religious exemptions from 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 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 should be able to employ people to certain positions that have a genuine occupational requirement for adherence to the religious beliefs of the institution. This would include people charged with teaching the tenets of the particular faith, for example. 

But many of these institutions claim a blanket right to discriminate. As a result, Australians are fired or face disciplinary action due to their sexual or gender status, having experienced a breakdown or divorce in their marriage, having accessed IVF treatment, or having fallen pregnant outside wedlock. 

This is particularly galling given the large size of the faith-based education sector and the amount of taxpayer funding it receives.

Religious exemptions harm and hurt

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). They include:

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 de facto 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 religious exemptions from discrimination laws to be removed, especially in relation to LGBTI people. Some state governments are actively looking at the issue:

  • In South Australia, the Marshall government is proposing 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 2018, at federal level, there was a public backlash about religious exemptions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to act swiftly to 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. 

Instead, the Morrison government seems keen to expand religious exemptions for faith-based institutions under its proposed Religious Discrimination Bill. See our #DontDivideUs campaign.

What the RSA is doing

We think that in 21st-century Australia, it’s wrong for religious-based institutions to have such wide-ranging exemptions from the laws that govern the rest of us. 

A maths teacher who falls pregnant outside wedlock shouldn’t fear losing her job. Nor should a gardener whose marriage breaks down and ends in divorce.

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 our elected representatives know it. That includes writing to leaders of governments, oppositions, and minor parties. We’ll be seeking meetings with members of parliament and making submissions to parliamentary inquiries. 

With your help, we will also be implementing an advertising campaign to share this message with thousands of Australians.

What you can do

There are a number of ways you can help us make an impact. They include:

  1. Donate to our RSA Fighting Fund so we can pay for advertising to build public awareness. 
  1. Download these images and share on your social media.  
  1. Contact your state/territory or federal member of parliament to urge them to support the removal of unfair, divisive religious exemptions.
  1. Tell your story: let us know if you, or someone you know, has been affected, by these religious exemptions.

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All the more reason.