There has been a lot of focus on Scott Morrison’s stance on LGBTI issues in religious schools, but we need to know where Labor stands too, especially when it comes to protecting LGBTI teachers from discrimination.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the issue of discrimination against LGBTI students and teachers in faith schools will not be dealt with before the coming federal election.

This means we are heading into a national election campaign without knowing exactly where Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Federal Labor stand on the issue of LGBTI teachers and other staff in faith-based schools.

If Labor is to form government later this year, it’s critical that our community gets them on the record before the election with their policy commitment.

In January last year, deputy Labor leader, Tanya Plibersek, said Labor had “no plans” to remove existing religious exemptions that allowed schools to hire and fire staff based on their sexuality.

These anti-LGBTI laws were strengthened and expanded under Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, during the same period Labor was blocking marriage equality.

While Labor and the Coalition have now both stated support for prohibiting discrimination against LGBTI students, neither party have matched this with any clear commitment to teachers.

Late last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to introduce legislation ‘before Christmas’ to end discrimination against LGBTI students, but failed to do so after Labor suddenly said it wanted to amend the legislation to include teachers.

This sudden shift in Labor policy to include teachers was no doubt driven by polling which showed overwhelming public opposition to discrimination to LGBTI teachers.

Despite this change of heart, the ALP did not actually circulate any amendments to the Government’s legislation on protecting students, so nobody knows exactly how far it is prepared to go to protect teachers.

Neither was anything clarified when Labor introduced a Private Member’s Bill to protect LGBTI students late last year in the senate.

That Bill did not include teachers and only vague references were made to protecting them in the future.

What we do know is that under pressure from its Catholic faction, Labor is now considering amendments to legislation that would allow faith schools the right to uphold their “ethos and values”, but again – no draft legislation has been forthcoming.

This concern about “ethos and values” has come from Labor’s Catholic MPs who have expressed concern that church schools opposed to same-sex marriage might be prosecuted for speaking against it and in favour of “traditional marriage” within the school’s “ethos and values.”

Bill Shorten has expressed full support for this amendment, but its ramifications are unclear.

If a church school is opposed to marriage equality and supports only traditional marriage, and has that position protected in legislation to guard its “ethos and values”, then what does that mean for a teacher in same-sex relationship?

Does the “ethos and values” provision advocated by Labor allow a faith school to refuse to hire an LGBTI bursar, or allow a Catholic school to sack a gay teacher who gets married under the 2017 Federal Marriage Act?

Our community needs to be assured that special protections for “ethos and values” is not just a back-door provision that will allow discrimination against teachers.

In January a poll from Equality Australia was released showing over 70 per cent support for protecting teachers.

This reflects a poll from May last year, commissioned by Just.Equal and conducted by YouGov Galaxy, which found:

  • 82 per cent Australians oppose LGBTI students being expelled from faith schools
  • 79 per cent of Australians oppose LGBTI teachers being sacked from faith schools

In releasing its poll, spokesperson for Equality Australia, Aram Hosie, said:

“The Morrison Government must ensure their proposed Act [Religious Freedom] does not allow for religious exceptionalism that leaves LGBTQ students and teachers vulnerable to discrimination.”

But the real concern for the LGBTI community is not Scott Morrison and the Coalition; it’s Bill Shorten and Labor. Here are the four key questions Labor needs to answer:

  • Will Labor prohibit discrimination against LGBTI teachers and staff in faith schools, including at the point of job application and interview?
  • Will Labor prohibit discrimination against married LGBTI teachers and staff in faith-based schools?
  • Will Labor guarantee that proposed “upholding ethos and values” provisions in anti-discrimination law for faith schools not be used as an indirect mechanism to discriminate against LGBTI teachers?
  • Will Labor acknowledge that Tasmanian state law has prohibited LGBTI discrimination against teachers and students in faith-based schools for 20 years, and not introduce Federal legislation that is weaker than this benchmark?

Peter Furness was a founding member and former Convenor of Australian Marriage Equality. 

peter furness

Peter Furness. Image: Supplied.

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