The Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has finally released its report into the legislation put forth to remove discrimination exemptions applied to LGBTI students at faith-based schools.

The inquiry into the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018 was initially due to deliver its report on Monday February 11 before an extension was granted.

The report, which specifically reviewed Senator Penny Wong’s bill to remove exemptions, was finally released late on Thursday afternoon, with the committee making just two recommendations.

“The committee recommends that the bill and circulated amendments not be passed,” the report states as its first.

The second  that “the bill, circulated amendments and all relevant matters be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission for full and proper consideration.”

The committee’s decision acknowledged “that the issues raised by the bill are of great concern to the Australian community.”

“The large volume of written submissions and form letters the committee received, as well as the wealth of information provided by witnesses at the public hearings, clearly demonstrated the public interest in the matter,” the report says.

The report says that while the committee recognises community support for removing the discrimination exemptions from the Sex Discrimination Act, as well as public commitments by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and others to take action on the issue, it views this specific legislation as flawed.

“While the committee considers it necessary and appropriate to prohibit discrimination against LGBTIQ+ school students, it is of the view that this should not occur at the expense of the ability of religious educational institutions to maintain their ethos through what they teach and the rules of conduct that they impose on their students.

“Religious freedom is a vital aspect of Australian society and religious communities should feel respected and protected.

“Additionally, faith-based schools have a unique and important role to play in Australia’s education system. It is imperative that they are able to maintain their religious ethos and teach in accordance with their beliefs, without the threat of legal liability.

“The committee considers the bill at the centre of this inquiry to be flawed,” the report continues.

“Although the circulated government amendments represent a reasonable and sensible attempt to remedy the overreach and unintended consequences of the bill while still honouring its original intent, the committee is of the opinion that matters of anti-discrimination and religious freedom are too important and too complex to be dealt with in haste.

“Rather than a piecemeal, reactionary approach, as exemplified by the poor drafting of the bill and the short time frame allocated for this inquiry, the committee believes a more considered, holistic proposition is required to ensure that the matter is resolved in the best possible way.

“In light of this, the committee is recommending that the bill and all circulated amendments not be passed.

“Instead, in-depth consideration of this matter must be conducted by the ALRC in order to properly and comprehensively assess the consequences arising from any potential legislative changes.

“The committee considers that such a referral will allow for a proper exploration of all the issues at stake and lead to a plan for cohesive, balanced reform,” the committee’s report concludes.

A dissenting report from Labor senators written by Senator Louise Pratt expressed ongoing support for the bill, agreeing to one amendment to clarify the scope of educational institutions referred to in the legislation.

“Labor is proud to have put forward this bill which will remove the exemptions within the Sex Discrimination Act that allows religious educational institutions to discriminate against children in connection with the provision of education or training,” Pratt wrote.

A second dissenting report from The Greens’ Equality Spokesperson Senator Janet Rice also recommended the legislation be passed.

“The Greens reject that the proposed amendments by the government are needed as they unnecessarily extend the scope for discrimination by religious institutions,” Rice wrote.

“Further delay at achieving this reform is unacceptable,” she stated, recommending that The Greens’ amendments to the legislation – which extends its scope to cover teachers and staff at faith-based schools – also be passed.

Morrison had already referred the issue of LGBTI school discrimination to the ALRC last year as part of the government’s response to the full Ruddock review into religious freedom.

Advocates last year warned that an ALRC review would only further protract the issue. The outcome of the Senate committee’s report now suggests that the matter won’t be settled until after the federal election in May.

In their evidence at the committee’s hearings, an Australian Christian Lobby’s spokesperson described discrimination against LGBTI students in religious schools an “illusory problem”.

On Wednesday, a petition organised by Minus18 bearing 52,000 signatures opposing the preservation of discrimination exemptions was delivered to Canberra.

just.equal’s spokesperson Rodney Croome, who gave evidence at the inquiry’s public hearings in early February, slammed the further delay in removing the discrimination exemptions, something the majority of Australians support.

“On this day of love, the Government’s Valentine’s Day gift to LGBTI people is continued discrimination, prejudice and hate,” Croome said.

“As someone who has seen the benefits of Tasmania’s strong anti-discrimination laws to both LGBTI people and to faith-based schools, I am bewildered why the Tasmanian model isn’t immediately adopted nationally.

“We don’t need yet another inquiry. We need a Government that will do the right thing.”

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