The Senate Legal Committee has tabled its report recommending that the Federal Government reject key parts of the Philip Ruddock-led religious freedom review, which would allow faith-based institutions to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or relationship status.
Advocates feared that the Ruddock review was a smokescreen to enshrine discrimination in law, an idea seemingly confirmed by the absence of any LGBTI people on the panel and by numerous reports of hostile questioning.
The Ruddock review was additionally opaque by design: the hearings were closed to the public and unrecorded. The effect was that members of the panel could hide behind plausible deniability if advocates questioned their comments or competency.
If the purpose of the Ruddock review was to appease those hostile to same-sex marriage, then it has backfired spectacularly. The government’s efforts have alerted the broader community to the extraordinary extent of legal discrimination against LGBT people, particularly in education.
The government has since declined to publish the report because it was a lose-lose situation. Curbing existing religious privileges would offend volatile factions within the Coalition while advocating in favour of legal discrimination against LGBT people would go against the grain of public opinion.
The overwhelming majority of Australians do not support discriminating against gay students and teachers, and there is some appetite for winding back these exemptions. Additionally, as anti-LGBT campaigners learnt during the postal survey, it is deeply unpopular to harangue gender and sexually diverse people explicitly.
It seems likely, then, that the government will release the Ruddock report as close to Christmas as possible to play up a persecuted Christian narrative. Without a compelling argument as to why we should discriminate against queer kids, the second best option is to frame LGBT people as aggressors.
The government should immediately move to protect students from discrimination and should extend these protections to teachers. The health and wellbeing of young people cannot wait and, as the Senate report indicates, there is no reason not to extend such protections to teachers and other staff.
However, we need a broader approach to this issue. The terms of reference of the Senate investigation were too narrow given that religious institutions may additionally discriminate against gender and sexually diverse people in areas beyond the schoolyard.
For example, services run by religious institutions can turn away LGBT people. This includes adoption, aged care, disability, family violence, and housing services. These are not private religious observances but public services which should operate according to the same rules as other organisations.
After the Ruddock report, we need a comprehensive review of the extent and harms of faith-based discrimination against LGBTI people in 2019.
It is crucial that this new review move beyond educational settings and encompasses the issue of service provision. It is also essential that the government include members from the LGBT community on the panel, and that hearings are public and transparent.
Removing the legal right to discriminate against students and teachers is all but inevitable. The Morrison Government has realised that it cannot defend prejudice against students and teachers, and multiple controversies have compromised the credibility of the Ruddock review.
There is no reason why the government should not extend protections for students to employees and clients as well. An emergency housing provider or family violence shelter should not be allowed to turn someone away merely because of their sexuality or gender identity.
Pundits have tried to frame the debate as a zero-sum game between LGBT people and the faithful, but this is misleading. The people most likely to experience such discrimination are LGBT people in faith communities, so the dichotomy falls flat.
Perhaps more importantly, it is entirely possible to protect religious freedoms in Australia while balancing those freedoms with basic human rights. Support for LGBT rights has never been stronger and it is time that the government caught up.
Every person deserves to be treated fairly and with dignity.
Joshua Badge is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an LGBT activist. Twitter: @joshuabadge