Advocates have called on the Labor Party to clarify their stance on removing anti-discrimination exemptions for religious schools as the election looms.

just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome says Labor “seems to be backing two horses” after Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek told a forum that religious schools should be able to hire staff in line with their values.

Plibersek said that there is no reason schools couldn’t hire staff who “faithfully represent their value­s” while also protecting staff and students from discrimination.

The longtime Member for Sydney told the Catholic Schools NSW forum that she understands that schools “don’t want to discriminate against kids and they don’t want to discriminate against teachers”.

“The way it was put to me was: what we want is employees who can live by or demonstrate the values of our school.

“And I think that it is possible to find that balance where we don’t discriminate against people because­ of who they love or how they identify but that those people who are employees of an organisation have to faithfully represent the values of that organisation,” she said.

Croome said that Labor needed to clarify how these comments square with the party’s previously introduced amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act. Labor has also indicated general support for legislation prohibiting religious discrimination.

“LGBTI teachers in faith-based schools need certainty that they will be protected from discrimination under a Labor Government,” Croome said.

“We want to know whether, for example, Labor intends to allow discrimination at the point of recruitment but not after, or if an LGBTI teacher is married, but not if they are single.

“If Labor is truly for workers, it should provide LGBTI teachers with the same level of job security as other teachers.”

The Coalition government has submitted the matter of religious exemptions to the Australian Law Reform Commission, which is due to report on federal and state laws by next year.

In their response to Equality Australia’s LGBTIQ survey questions, Labor responded by saying that “a Shorten Labor Government will amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the exemptions that permit religious schools to discriminate against students and staff on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.”

“We do not believe that freedom from discrimination and religious freedom are mutually exclusive,” the response read, mirroring Plibersek’s comments.

“We do not believe that the removal of these exemptions will hamper a religious school’s capacity to continue to teach its religion and operate according to its traditions and beliefs.

“If elected, a Shorten Labor Government will consult with stakeholders on the best way forward to address this issue, and then legislate to make our commitment law.

“Labor will continue to work to remove all discriminatory measures against LGBTIQ people from Commonwealth law.”

However, the Labor Party response to a similar question posed by the National Catholic Education Commission was notably less concrete.

“Labor is not proposing to amend the indirect discrimination provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act that allow educational institutions to impose reasonable conditions, requirements or practices in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed,” the response reads.

“In our platform we declare: ‘Labor supports the appropriate protection of the religious freedom of all people.’

“The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek, made our position on the rights of religious schools very clear in Parliament when she stated, “Schools are also entitled to have rules that ensure staff – and I’m quoting one of the organisations that wrote to me – don’t ‘deliberately and wilfully behave contrary to the values of the school.’”

“At the same time, Labor is committed to reducing discrimination in Australian society where it can be done in a responsible way that respects freedom of belief and conscience.

“We do not believe that freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination are mutually exclusive.

“To that end, Labor believes that students and teachers and other staff of religious schools should be protected from discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality and other attributes covered by the Sex Discrimination Act.”

Croome said just.equal had written to Labor’s Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to request clarification on how Labor’s permission of ‘indirect discrimination’ would affect teachers and staff going forward.

In October last year, talks between the Coalition and Labor aimed at finding a bipartisan solution to the issue reportedly broke down over the presence of an “indirect discrimination” provision in the Coalition’s draft bill.

The draft bill allowed decisions made to protect “the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed” and where the school “had regard to the best interests of the student”.

“The test for indirect discrimination is already very broad and allows a school to defend a claim when their conduct is reasonable in the circumstances,” said Anna Brown, former Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, at the time.

“These provisions are unnecessary and need to be carefully considered for risks or unintended consequences.”

Croome said just.equal has yet to receive a response from Dreyfus.

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