By Dr Sean Mulcahy & Liam Elphick

The Religious Discrimination Bill being debated in the federal parliament would have serious adverse consequences for LGBTQI people throughout the nation, and particularly LGBTQI Victorians.

The Bill would override future Victorian laws that protect workers from discrimination based on their beliefs. It would instead allow religious hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers, disability service providers and other workplaces to discriminate against workers who do not share their beliefs.

Religious charities would be able to refuse help to people in need that are not part of their religion. Religious camps and conference sites would be able to refuse accommodation to groups that do not share the same faith. Religious schools and universities could refuse to make facilities available for same-sex weddings. 

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The Bills also protects offensive and harmful statements of belief from action under anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws, and protects the charitable status of anti-marriage equality groups.

A License To Discriminate

One of the most concerning aspects of the bill is that it overrides states that have strong anti-discrimination laws, like Victoria and Tasmania.

As the Victorian Pride Lobby’s Co-Convenor Evie Potter says, the “Religious Discrimination Bill specifically targets Victoria’s soon to be nation-leading anti-discrimination laws, and would override provisions that protect prospective employees from discrimination.”

Laws currently being debated in Victoria’s Legislative Council would mean that religious schools and organisations could only refuse to hire a person who does not hold their religious beliefs if religious belief is an inherent requirement of the role. Any discrimination would also have to be reasonable and proportionate.

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The Religious Discrimination Bill would override this common sense approach and reverse the Victorian changes. It would allow religious schools to discriminate on the basis of religion if it is in good faith and in accordance with a publicly-available policy – a policy they get to set themselves. This would mean, for example, that a religious school which opposes marriage equality could refuse to hire a teacher that supports same-sex marriage.

No Protection For LGBTQI Teachers & Staff

This might seem extreme, but it is already happening. For ten years, Rachel Colvin taught English at a Ballarat Christian College. In 2018, she was required to sign a statement by the school that marriage must be between a man and a woman, which was contrary to her own religious beliefs. As a result of refusing to sign the statement, she lost her job and took action against the school.

Under the Victorian reforms, schools like Ballarat Christian College would have to show that holding a religious belief about marriage was essential to the role of English teacher and that it was reasonable and proportionate for the school to enforce that belief. That seems unlikely. The Victorian reforms would almost certainly protect teachers like Mrs Colvin. 

However, these reforms would be overridden by the Religious Discrimination Bill, which would offer no such protection. Teachers like Mrs Colvin could be turned away for even slight differences in religious views or interpretations, even if they have no bearing on their job and their classes.

Gay Students Waiting For Protections Promised By PM

As Potter says, “the Bill does nothing to protect LGBTQ+ students and teachers – it allows more discrimination by religious schools by reversing protections under Victorian law. This opens up Victorian teachers and staff to more discrimination, and does absolutely nothing to stop religious schools expelling LGBTQ+ students.”

It is the Victorian reforms that will protect LGBTQ+ students and teachers. The Prime Minister promised to protect LGBTQ+ students from discrimination at schools more than three years ago, but it is the Victorian government that is leading the way.

We cannot allow the Prime Minister to wind back Victoria’s anti-discrimination reforms. Doing so will only serve to exacerbate discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. 

 

Dr Sean Mulcahy is a Research Officer at the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health and Society and a former Co-Convenor of the Victorian Pride Lobby.

Liam Elphick is an Associate Lecturer at the Monash University Faculty of Law and a committee member at the Victorian Pride Lobby.

 

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