RSA’s submission supports proposed amendments on religious exemptions

Si Gladman / 22 February 2023

The Rationalist Society of Australia has supported proposed amendments to repeal the exemptions from discrimination laws that allow religious schools and institutions to sack or discipline staff on a number of grounds.

In a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) consultation process into Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws, RSA president Meredith Doig argued that exemptions to anti-discrimination laws had no place in modern Australia.

Read the full submission here.

The submission cited numerous examples, including from media stories in recent years, of the use of such exemptions to sack or discipline teachers for reasons including their marital or relationship status, parental status, sexuality or pregnancy.

“The use of these religious exemptions negatively affects individuals, causing unnecessary harm and hurt to vulnerable people throughout communities across Australia,” wrote Dr Doig.

“While much of the media coverage focuses on the negative impact of such religious exemptions on LGBTIQ people in schools, it is important to recognise this issue does not only affect LGBTIQ people.”

The ALRC has proposed changes to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to ensure a religious educational institution:

  • must not discriminate against a student on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
  • must not discriminate against a member of staff on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
  • can continue to build a community of faith by giving preference, in good faith, to persons of the same religion as the educational institution in the selection of staff.

Dr Doig argued that, given the large size of the faith-based education sector, schools have an obligation to the wider community to respect and comply with laws that apply to the rest of society.

The submission also said that the RSA accepted the argument that faith-based institutions should be allowed to appoint people to certain positions where religious knowledge, skill and experience could be seen to be a genuine occupational requirement.

The ALRC consultation paper proposes that religious educational institutions be allowed to give preference to job applicants based on religious belief so long as “the teaching, observance or practice of religion is a genuine occupational requirement”, and we believe this strikes the right balance.

Dr Doig warned that any new federal legislation should not override stronger protections for staff and students currently operating in some states.

While it is to be expected that conservative religious lobbyists and church leaders will argue for their right to maintain these exemptions and the ability to discriminate, the RSA submission said such views were out of step not only with the Australian public but also with mainstream religious congregations.

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Photo: Eric Ward on Unsplash.

All the more reason.