In January 2021, Covenant Christian School in Sydney sacked teacher Steph Lentz after she came out as lesbian. The dismissal was legally valid under laws in NSW and other Australian states and territories, including in Victoria that grant exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act to religious organisations and schools. 

Religious organisations and schools in Victoria however may soon no longer be able to legally fire LGBTQI+ staff on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Ten years after the then Liberal government removed protections for LGBTQI+ staff in the state, the Dan Andrews Labor government on Thursday announced that it would make it unlawful for religious organisations and schools to fire or refuse to hire persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

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Victoria will join Tasmania, which had put in place similar protections for LGBTQI+ teachers and staff at religious schools. According to Anna Brown, CEO, Equality Australia, the proposed reforms would “ensure Victoria’s laws catch up with 21st century community standards.”

‘People Shouldn’t Have To Hide Who They Are’

The existing rules and lack of protections had led to many LGBTQI+ staff living constantly under fear of being outed and losing their jobs. LGBTQI+ rights organisations have welcomed the decision as long overdue and much needed to protect LGBTQI+ staff. 

“People shouldn’t have to hide who they are to keep their job. We’re closing this unfair, hurtful gap in our laws so that Victoria’s LGBTIQ+ community won’t have to pretend to be someone they’re not, just to do the job they love,” Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said in a statement. 

“These laws will strike the right balance between protecting the LGBTIQ+ community from discrimination and supporting the fundamental rights of religious bodies and schools to practice their faith,” said the Symes.  

In 2011, the then Liberal government had removed protections for LGBTQI+ persons against employment discrimination. Religious organisations and schools were granted exemption from state and federal anti-discrimination laws which allowed them to legally sack or refuse to hire out LGBTQI+ staff. 

Reforms Long Overdue

Daniel Andrews at Midsumma Pride March 2019

Daniel Andrews at Midsumma Pride March 2019.

The proposed reforms will “narrow these exceptions, making it unlawful for religious bodies and schools to discriminate against an employee because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or other protected attribute.”  

Further, the government has said that “religious bodies that receive government funding to provide services will also not be able to refuse to provide those services to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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Victorian Greens who had said they would bring in their own bill if the exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act were not removed, welcomed the announcement. 

“No-one should live in fear of losing their job or being kicked out of school for who they love or how they identify, but that’s exactly what these harmful exemptions are doing,” Victorian Greens LGBTIQA+ spokesperson and MP Sam Hibbins said in a statement. 

“We shouldn’t underestimate just how insidious and damaging the current laws are to LGBTQ+ people. Having repeatedly moved to remove the exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act, the Greens look forward to supporting the bill when it comes to Parliament and strengthening it if required,” added Hibbins. 

Draft Reforms Later This Year

Victorian Pride Lobby in a post on Twitter said that the reforms were a “a huge step and something our communities have been advocating for for years.

“The Lobby looks forward to seeing the draft reforms later this year. We hope it leaves no room for LGBTQ+ people to be discriminated against because of who they are or who they love.”

The Victorian government said that they would consult with LGBTIQ+ groups, education bodies and faith-based groups to ensure the new law “strikes a fair balance between competing rights”. Minister for Equality Martin Foley said that these “changes show how important it is to continue backing the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community in all aspects of life.”

For 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14

For Australia-wide LGBTQI peer support call QLife on 1800 184 527 or webchat.

 

 

 

 

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