Philip Ruddock religious freedom

Philip Ruddock’s religious freedoms review — commissioned following the passage of marriage equality, and the attendant farrago about religious schools being defunded and compulsory Safe Schools — has been leaked to Fairfax, after months of confidential government consultation.

The leak reveals fairly little and that which it does confirms what we already knew: the review reportedly recommends preserving religious freedom by extending discrimination, and is entirely unaffected by marriage law. Here’s what we know so far: 

What does the review call for?

It calls for the Sex Discrimination Act to be amended to allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status, essentially explicitly extending to students what is already in place for teachers. 

What is the current law?

Currently, the Sex Discrimination Act provides shielding for religious institutions from claims of discrimination around firing or refusing to hire someone based on their sexual orientation, their gender identity or their marriage status. 

These exemptions for religious institutions were in evidence last year, when relief teacher Craig Campbell was let go by South Coast Baptist College in Western Australia after revealing he was in a same-sex relationship. Campbell had no means of redress. 

What about students?

As for students, it’s less clear cut — asked on ABC News Breakfast on Wednesday morning, acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek confessed she didn’t know whether it was currently permitted to expel a child because of their sexuality. This may results from two factors: the state-by-state patchwork of anti-discrimination law, and the fact that discrimination legislation primarily deals with hiring.

New South Wales explicitly allows private schools to expel children for the sexuality. Elsewhere, it is often a grey area. Religious schools are frequently allowed to limit who they admit for reasons that would otherwise breach anti-discrimination laws, but the wording is usually vague, focusing on “religious sensibilities” and not explicitly mentioning sexuality.

The South Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2016 report on the matter expressed concerns that the “wording of the exemption [for religious bodies under SA discrimination law], appears broad enough to allow … a religious school to expel a homosexual student or to restrict that student’s participation in school activities”, which is fairly indicative of where most states fall.

There have been pushes to remove these ambiguities, both to make expelling students based on their sexuality explicitly legal or to make it explicitly illegal. Ruddock’s review firmly backs the former. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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