Submission on Alex Greenwich’s Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013

The following is my submission, lodged today, in response to a discussion paper and Bill released by the Member for Sydney, Mr Alex Greenwich. The Paper and Bill seek to remove exceptions which allow private educational authorities, including religious schools, the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students. Unfortunately, I think that to achieve that goal, more amendments to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 may need to be made. In any event, I believe that there are a range of other amendments which should also be made at the same time, including the removal of section 56 generally. Anyway, here it is:

Mr Alex Greenwich

Member for Sydney

Sydney@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Monday 30 September 2013

Dear Mr Greenwich

Submission on Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to your discussion paper on anti-discrimination law reform, released in August 2013, and in particular in relation to your Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013 (the Bill), which you introduced into NSW Parliament on 19 September 2013.

First of all, let me say that I welcome your strong commitment to removing the discrimination that can be experienced by lesbian, gay and transgender students in private educational institutions, including private schools. As has been demonstrated by the Writing Themselves In reports, and countless other research projects over the years, schools can be one of the major sources of homophobia and trans-phobia in the lives of young people.

It is vital that any ‘exceptions’ in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 which may authorise schools to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students are removed, and this must apply to all types of private schools, including religious schools. From what I have read, both in the Discussion Paper and associated media, as well as in your Second Reading Speech, I believe this is what your Bill is attempting to achieve.

However, I do have some concerns about the Anti-Discrimination (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013, in particular:

  • It is unclear whether the Bill, as drafted, will accomplish this aim
  • There are a range of other amendments which also need to be made to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1997 and
  • If the Bill is aimed at removing the right to discriminate from religious schools, thereby provoking an expected negative response from religious organisations, then I believe that the right of religious organisations to discriminate more broadly under s56 should be removed at the same time.

Turning first to the question of whether the Bill, if passed, would actually achieve the aim of removing the right to discriminate from all schools, including religious schools, I note that the Bill simply removes those provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1997 which provide a specific right to discriminate (namely, sections 31A(3)(a), 38K(3), 46A(3), 49L(3)(a), 49ZO(3) and 49ZYL(3)(b)).

However, the Bill does not amend or seek to repeal the catch-all section which provides exceptions to religious organisations to discriminate – and that is found in section 56(d) which states: “Nothing in this Act affects: (d) any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

I am concerned that, by leaving this section unamended, the effect of your Bill would be to remove the right to discriminate from private educational authorities that are not religious, but that religious schools would retain the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students on the basis of their ‘religious principles or beliefs’. The practical effect of the Bill would therefore have a positive outcome for a much, much smaller cohort of students than what is intended.

This reading of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and in particular s56(d), appears to be supported by the main case in this area in recent years: OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293. This case involved a service operated by the Wesley Mission, which sought to utilise the ‘protections’ offered in s56(d) to discriminate against gay male foster carers. The Wesley Mission was ultimately successful in its appeal.

While foster care is obviously not exactly the same as providing education in religious schools, I believe that it is potentially analogous in terms of indicating how broad the religious exceptions under s56(d) are in practice, and in particular in suggesting that they would operate to shield religious schools that discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students from the scope of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

This also appears to be the opinion of the current Attorney-General of NSW, the Hon Greg Smith SC MP. In a speech titled Religious Vilification, Anti-Discrimination Law and Religious Freedom, which he gave on 24 August 2011, the Attorney-General discussed the operation of s56:

“116. Section 56 creates a general exemption from the ADA for religious bodies. Religious bodies are not required to comply with the ADA in relation to:

  1. The training, education, ordination or appointment of religious leaders [s56(a)&(b)];
  2. The appointment of any other person [s56(c)];
  3. Any other act or practice that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of thast religion [s56(d)].

117. Section 56 was included in the ADA when first enacted. While other jurisdictions have adopted a general exception from their anti-discrimination statutes for religious bodies, the exceptions are narrower than that under the ADA in the following ways:

a. While section 56(c) of the ADA exempts the appointment of persons ‘in any capacity’ by a religious body, other jurisdictions exempt only appointment of persons to perform functions related to religious practices;

b. Some other jurisdictions have provisions equivalent to s56(d) of the ADA, but others are narrower. Those that are narrower limit the exemption to acts done as part of a religious practice [NT], or don’t extend the exemption to discrimination in work or education [Qld], or limit the grounds of discrimination that are exempt.” [emphasis added]

The implication from this speech, and in particular from para 117(b) above, is that the Attorney-General believes that the protections offered by s56(d) would be available to a school or educational facility run by a religious organisation. This also appears to be the interpretation of s 56(d) by other organisations and advocacy groups which work in this area, including the Inner-City Legal Centre and Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

If that is the case – that either your Bill does not operate to limit the right of religious schools to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students, or that there may be some ongoing uncertainty in this area – then might I suggest you seek additional legal advice on the scope of s56(d), and whether further amendments to your Bill might be necessary to guarantee the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender students in religious schools not to be discriminated against. Obviously, if the Bill is to be debated and ultimately voted upon in late 2013 or early 2014, it would be useful to have clarity about the exact protections to be offered by the Bill beforehand.

Moving on to my second concern about the Bill, which applies irrespective of whether students at religious schools are covered or not, specifically that there are a range of other serious problems with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and it is my belief that these issues should be considered at the same time by the Parliament.

For example, as well as protecting lesbian, gay and transgender students, anti-discrimination protections should also be offered to teachers and other employees at the same schools, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In fact, I believe that religious exceptions should be limited to only cover the appointment of ministers of religion, and the conduct of religious ceremonies. In short, religious organisations should no longer be sanctioned by the State to discriminate in employment and service delivery in places like hospitals or social services – and a reform to the existing law is a perfect opportunity to make such changes.

There are also a range of problems with the current scope of, and definitions included in, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, including the fact that it protects homosexuals (in s49ZF) rather than people with different sexual orientations (with the effect that, while lesbians and gay men are covered, bisexuals are not).

The NSW Act also includes what I understand to be an out-dated definition of transgender (in s38A), rather than the preferred definition of gender identity as passed in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013. Indeed, the NSW Act does not even cover intersex status at all, unlike its Commonwealth counterpart. I hope that you, and other MPs involved in this area of public policy, are consulting with groups representing the transgender and intersex communities about whether, and how, to deal with these issues.

There are also other problems with the current Act, including what I find to be an objectionable difference in financial penalties for individual offenders found guilty of vilification; the maximum financial penalty for racial or HIV/AIDS vilification (set at 50 Penalty Units) is five times higher than that for homosexual or transgender vilification (set at 10 Penalty Units). There can be no justification for this discrepancy, which effectively creates a hierarchy of offensiveness, with some types of vilification considered more serious than others.

The above problems with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 are simply those which I have identified from my own reading and research. I am sure that there are other issues which also need to be addressed. This to me suggests that there is sufficient impetus for a more comprehensive re-write of the Act. While the subject of protecting lesbian, gay and transgender students is an incredibly important one, I believe that the range of problems identified above should all be dealt with at the same time.

Which brings me to my third concern with the draft Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013, and that is a concern around tactics or strategy.

By attempting to limit the right of religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students in their schools, you are taking on something which many churches take to be an inalienable ‘right’ – the ability to indoctrinate young people with their religious teachings against homosexuality or transgender identity.

As a result, I would expect a significant backlash from those same religious organisations against your Bill. The size or scale of that backlash might only be slightly less than that which could be expected from an attempt to narrow the broader exceptions contained in section 56 (by limiting its coverage to the appointment of ministers and conduct of religious ceremonies).

In that case, it is my personal view that, as well as removing the specific provisions concerning private educational authorities (as featured in your Bill), any attempt to reform the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 should also contain provisions which significantly reduce the scope of s56. If people such as yourself are going to take on the right of religious organisations to discriminate, then why not do so more comprehensively, rather than in what could be described a piecemeal (or at the very least, narrowly-targeted) fashion?

Which is not to say that moves to protect lesbian, gay and transgender students from discrimination are not welcome – they obviously are. And I also wish to restate my support for the overall intention of the Bill; protecting young people who are lesbian, gay and transgender from homophobia and trans-phobia is an incredibly important objective.

However, any attempt to do so must ensure that the Bill captures all private schools, including religious schools. And, even if that drafting issue is resolved, it remains my personal view that reform to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 should go much further, and address broader issues including but not limited to restricting the scope of section 56.

Thank you for considering this submission.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

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