Private schools and colleges may no longer be free to discriminate against LGBTI students, the disabled, young teenage mothers, pregnant women and single people if a bill to be debated in NSW Parliament in coming months is successful.
The Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013, to be introduced by Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich, will make private schools and education institutions subject to the same laws that make discrimination unlawful in public schools. Across public education providers, it is unlawful to expel, refuse to enrol, limit access to benefits provided by a school, or subject a student to other forms of discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, gender, marital or domestic status, disability and sexuality.
Currently, however, faith-based schools receive exemptions under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 on all grounds but race. Private education institutions including universities, colleges and specialty schools like business schools are also subject to the exemptions. These institutions can also deny entry to students who are gay or lesbian, transgender, single, too old or pregnant, or refuse to teach them, because of a characteristic.
Speaking to the Star Observer this week, Greenwich said the bill will not impact on freedom of religion but instead offer a fair and transparent disputes resolution scheme conciliated by the Anti-Discrimination Board in cases of acute discrimination.
“In fact I think it improves freedom of religion for students who may both be gay and Christian or of other another faith. We know for instance that people can consider themselves to be both gay and Christian, and proud of both,” Greenwich said.
“This bill would allow students to go to a school where their faith may be taught and not fear being expelled from it.”
The most recent survey on the issue, a 2004 Newspoll of 650 adults in NSW and Victoria for the Australia Institute, found strong support for the reform. According to the poll, 89 per cent disagreed that private schools should be able to expel a student for being gay, with 76 per cent strongly disagreeing.
“Since 2004, obviously the whole state and whole country has gone a greater journey of acceptance of gay and lesbian people so I am sure the number would be even higher,” Greenwich said.
“I am hoping that the government will reflect the strong public support for this bill when they work out how they will address it.”
Greenwich is planning to meet with Premier Barry O’Farrell this week on whether the government will allow a conscience vote.
It is believed the Labor opposition is currently formulating its party position on the bill. However, it is likely that Labor MPs will at least be granted a conscience vote on the issue.
With Greenwich expected to formally introduce the bill for debate later this year, he is now calling for members of the public – particularly current and former students who may have been discriminated against – to share their stories by sending in a public submission. He has already received a number of submissions from Christian schools arguing that they should continue to be allowed to discriminate, as well as entries from students and other private schools that support the reform.
“I guess overall what the bill does is that it puts private schools on an equal playing field with public schools. Public schools are not able to discriminate against people based on whether they are pregnant or have a disability or are gay,” Greenwich said.
“Private schools should not be able to do that either. Particularly now with an increasing amount of state and federal funding going into private schools. We really shouldn’t be funding or subsidising discrimination.”
INFO: Submissions on the bill can be sent to Sydney@parliament.nsw.gov.au before September 30.