The last major battle for gay & lesbian legal equality in Australia won’t be about marriage

[Updated March 4th 2015]

This Saturday, the 37th annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will work its way up Oxford St with its now traditional mix of politics, colour and movement, and above all, pride. Pride in who we are, pride in our community, and pride in what we have managed to achieve.

Because life is unarguably better for the vast majority of Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) population in 2015 than it has ever been before. And that indeed is something to be proud about.

Following the first Mardi Gras on 24 June 1978, many of the barriers to legal equality have been removed. NSW passed anti-discrimination laws in 1982, followed by the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1984. Same-sex couples have since achieved de facto relationship recognition, and there is now equal access to assisted reproductive technology and adoption in most Australian jurisdictions.

It is likely that one area where legal rights have yet to be achieved will, once again, be the dominant theme of many of the more politically-oriented floats in this year’s parade – the Australian Parliament’s ongoing refusal to recognise marriage equality between all couples.

As someone who is engaged to be married, and who has been for more than four years but is currently prohibited from doing so, I understand why marriage equality is an issue which arouses such intense passion, and an admirable level of commitment from many activists around Australia.

But marriage equality is also something which most of us know is probably, some might say almost inevitably, going to be achieved at some point in the next five, at most 10, years.

When that day comes, when the first couples legally married under federal law have shared their vows and celebrated their commitments to each other in front of their families and friends, there will still be a major outstanding issue of legal inequality confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

It appears just as inevitable that, long after those couples dance their waltzes and cut their wedding cakes, the anti-discrimination protections which are offered to LGBT Australians under most state and federal laws will continue to be seriously undermined by the wide-ranging exceptions which are offered to religious organisations (NB Intersex is not included here because religious exemptions under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply on those grounds).

These exceptions allow religious schools to actively discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. Religious hospitals and community welfare organisations can utilise these loopholes to discriminate against LGBT employees, as well as patients and clients. And, while the historic federal reforms passed via the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 do not allow religious-operated aged care facilities to discriminate against LGBT people accessing their services, LGBT people can still be denied employment in those facilities simply because of who they are.

All of these services – education and health, community welfare and aged care – are located firmly and squarely in the public sphere, and address some of the most fundamental human needs in life. It is these same characteristics, that they are public services meeting public needs, that are used to justify the substantial amounts of public funding which subsidise the religious organisations running them, money which comes from all taxpayers, religious and non-religious, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike.

Yet, despite operating in the public sphere, almost always using public money, these organisations are granted exceptions from the same legal obligations that are imposed on any other group, namely the responsibility not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The justification for these ‘special rights’? Basically, that the ability to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is so fundamental to the exercise of religious freedom that it cannot be limited.

Note that we are not here talking about who is appointed as office-holders, including ministers, within a religion itself, what a particular religion may or may not believe in terms of morality, how religious ceremonies are undertaken, or even who can attend a religious ceremony. These are things that are central to religious freedom, and most people would not advocate the imposition of limits on the ability of religious organisations to discriminate in these areas.

Instead, some religious organisations (and we must say some, because not all groups hold these views) believe that they should have the right to fire a gay teacher, to expel a bisexual school student, to refuse to employ a lesbian aged care worker, or to deny services to someone who is transgender, even when all of the above is clearly done in the public sphere.

This is a much more substantive denial of rights than simply being denied access to marriage rites. Religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws can affect LGBT people in multiple areas of their lives, including times and places when they are at their most vulnerable. In practical terms, I believe it is religious exceptions and not marriage inequality that is the biggest battle left to be won for full gay and lesbian legal equality.

It is also a battle that looks set to be fought more ferociously than that over marriage equality. Some of the largest religious organisations in the country don’t just support these exceptions, they are prepared to wage cultural war to defend them.

The Wesley Mission recently spent eight years, and went all the way to the NSW Court of Appeal, defending their right to deny allowing a male same-sex couple to become foster carers to children in need. Wesley did so on the basis that: “[t]he biblical teaching on human sexuality makes it clear that monogamous heterosexual partnership within marriage is both the norm and ideal” (OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293 (10 December 2010).

Further, they submitted that: “Wesley Mission’s tradition views a monogamous heterosexual partnership in marriage as the ideal family role model for the vulnerable and sometimes damaged children we foster. Other understandings fall short of that norm.” And finally that “[t]he proposition that we should provide a framework for children to be cared for and nurtured within the context of a homosexual lifestyle is fundamentally unacceptable to our evangelical teaching and practice.”

The irony, some might say hypocrisy, of these statements is that, in the same case, Wesley Mission admitted that single people could themselves become foster carers through their service. Apparently they believed that two dads or two mums had less to offer foster children than one.

The net effect of the Wesley Mission case was to provide judicial confirmation of the breadth of the religious exceptions offered under section 56(d) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. That section reads: “[n]othing in this Act affects: 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.”

In short, if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, then you have no legal right or expectation to be treated fairly and without discrimination by a religious employer, or religious-operated service, in NSW.

It is no surprise then that, when the Federal Parliament was considering the Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012, the precursor of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, key NSW religious organisations would argue for religious exceptions to be established in Commonwealth law, too.

What is perhaps surprising is that some churches made submissions to the Senate inquiry considering the HRAD Bill that these exceptions do not go far enough.

The Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, and the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney (including the Diocese of Parramatta and the Catholic Education Commission of NSW), both argued that the concept of exceptions was problematic, and that the right to discriminate against LGBT people should instead be re-contextualised as a positive right.

From the Anglican submission: “[w]hile exceptions are necessary, casting the protection of these rights in a wholly negative manner, in the form of ‘exceptions’, does not do justice to their importance. It suggests they are merely to be tolerated rather than positively recognised and upheld as legitimate and important in themselves.”

Meanwhile, in a ‘Diedre Chambers’ style coincidence, the Catholic submission also wrote: “the terminology of “exceptions” is problematic and fails to acknowledge that the right of freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which the Commonwealth government is obliged to protect under international law. In our view, the terminology of “exceptions” should be replaced with the terminology of “protections”. Using the terminology of “protections” would recognise that conduct which is deemed not to be unlawful because it is covered by an exception related to religion is in fact lawful because it accords with the fundamental human right of freedom of religion” [emphasis in original].

Both submissions also go further than concerns surrounding terminology to argue that the exceptions which are offered to religious organisations should also be available to individuals – that is, that their personal beliefs should allow them to discriminate, even in their professional lives and when not working for a religious organisation.

For example, the Anglican submission recommended that “[a]n employee should not be required by their employer to undertake particular tasks or provide services in a particular context that are contrary to the employee’s genuinely held religious convictions where this is reasonable.”

Thankfully, that style of exception, which is located somewhere on the bottom half of the slippery slope down to the abhorrent type of laws currently attracting controversy in several US states, was not included in the final Commonwealth legislation. But in making that submission, the Anglican Church of Sydney has made clear the direction it wants anti-discrimination, or more accurately, pro-discrimination, laws to head [As an aside, if it had been passed then, when marriage equality does eventually become a reality, such provisions would have allowed individual employees to refuse to sell wedding cakes, or serve as wedding photographers, merely because of the sexual orientation and/or gender identities of the couples involved].

And they will fight equally hard to ensure that the current framework of exceptions applies in as many contexts as possible. The eventual removal of these exceptions in terms of people accessing aged care services was strongly resisted from some religious bodies, even if their arguments for doing so were quite weak (the Anglican submission on the HRAD Bill suggested that “[i]t may be unsettling to these communities to have residents who do not share their beliefs, values and ethos facility on matters of sexual practice”).

They have been more successful in fighting against recent proposed changes to NSW law that were simply attempting to remove the right of religious and other private schools to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender students (NB Bisexuality is shamefully still not a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977). Alex Greenwich’s amendments are currently on hold, at least in part because of the influence of the two major churches in the Parliament.

As we have seen, some religious organisations have demonstrated over the past 10 years that they are prepared to fight, by whatever means necessary (through the courts, in parliamentary inquiries, by lobbying parliamentarians directly and in public debate) to maintain and even extend the reach of these exceptions.

While this may seem to some like a theoretical (or even theological) debate, they are not doing so because they want the law to recognise abstract rights – they are engaged in this battle because they want the retain the ability to actively discriminate against LGBT people in real life.

Sadly, there are too many stories of this happening, of religious exceptions causing real-world harm to LGBT people. In the lead-up to Mr Greenwich’s Bill being introduced, several lesbian and gay students came forward with stories of being sent to the counsellor’s office for being “sick” (that is, for being gay), of being called disgusting and a disgrace – by a teacher no less – and threatened with exclusion from senior school, and of being told not to talk about their sexuality in addition to being excluded from school events (source: “Discrimination has no place in schools” Alex Greenwich, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September, 2013).

Not forgetting the recent incident where the Sacred Heart Primary School at Broken Hill, which falls within the Wilcannia-Forbes Catholic Diocese, rejected a young girl’s kindergarten application simply because her parents were two women (source: “Same-sex enrolment row prompts call for law change”, ABC News Online, 15 December 2011).

Of course, these are just some of the stories that we are aware about. Most people who are discriminated against by religious organisations, either directly or indirectly, do not speak up, because they are aware that the discriminatory actions of those bodies are entirely lawful, or because they fear retribution from those organisations if they do so.

Which brings me back to the Mardi Gras Parade. While for many of us the decision to participate on Saturday is an easy one, choosing to celebrate pride in who we are and as part of our community, for others the decision whether to be visible or not in this manner can be significantly more complicated.

For people already engaged with religious organisations in different ways, or whose profession may involve applying for jobs with them (for example, more than a third of schools in Australia are religious, an even higher proportion amongst secondary schools), choosing to be ‘out’ through Mardi Gras can have serious repercussions.

Some people can and do have a legitimate fear that being identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender could result in them being fired, or being refused employment in the first place, in being expelled from school (or seriously mistreated while there), or being denied necessary services. Neither state nor federal anti-discrimination law would currently protect them in these circumstances.

In this respect, despite all of the progress in law reform since the first Mardi Gras parade was held back in 1978, there is still an incredibly long way to go. That is one of the reasons why we must ensure that Mardi Gras, as well as being a celebration of pride, also continues to serve its role as a political protest.

It is also why me must continue to campaign for equality, and to fight for our rights, including the right not to be discriminated against. Given the scale of the challenge involved in removing these unjust religious exceptions, and how hard (some) religious organisations will struggle to retain them (and therefore to maintain their position of privilege in society), we should be aware that it is not a fight that we will win in months. It will take several years, at least – if not decades.

But it is a battle we must wage nonetheless. Because, if LGBT Australians are ever to be truly equal under the law, then the special exceptions granted to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory laws must end.

Explanatory notes: I have attempted to be clear in this post about when I am speaking about gay and lesbian, or LGBT, or LGBTI, because sometimes the law affects these groups in different ways (and please accept my apologies if I have made some errors in this respect). For example, removing religious exceptions cannot be the last major battle for bisexual legal equality – especially if they are not included in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act in the first place.

Equally, I am not in a position to argue that religious exceptions are the biggest legal issue confronting transgender Australians when uniform positive recognition of gender identity is not yet a reality. And, while intersex people are not subject to religious exceptions under the Sex Discrimination Act, I also wouldn’t describe this issue as more important than banning involuntary medical sterilisation, something I have written about previously (see link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/25/no-3-senate-report-on-involuntary-or-coerced-sterilisation-of-intersex-people-in-australia/).

Finally, while I wrote in the second paragraph that, for the vast majority of LGBTI Australians, life is unarguably better than it has ever been before, I do not wish to underestimate the ongoing problems of mental illness, depression and suicide which affect many young LGBTI people, or indeed the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers, who Australia continues to send to Nauru and Manus Island, PNG, for ‘processing and resettlement’.

One (more) final thing: if you liked this post, please consider sharing. Thanks, Alastair

2 thoughts on “The last major battle for gay & lesbian legal equality in Australia won’t be about marriage

  1. A great blog. I think we need leadership on religious freedom as currently it rests with just a few institutions who get to steal the religious freedom of other religions, that of many of their members and agnostics and atheists are seen as ‘terra nullius’ when it comes to religious and moral beliefs. The position of religion and religious freedom within human rights needs to be challenged as currently religion trumps a person’s biology. We need to acknowledge a stratified concept of human rights that places biology above cultural add-ons like religion. I see marriage equality furthering these ideals and promoting understanding, yet religious and moral freedom has been ignored by the pro-equality side.

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    • Thanks very much for the comment Eric. I agree that current approaches to human rights, especially in the Australian legal system, seem to have a hierarchy of human rights which prioritises the rights of one group to actively discriminate, above the rights of another group to be protected from discrimination. I would have thought the natural starting position would be supporting freedom from discrimination, and then freedom to, but only if it doesn’t cause detriment to others – and in this case, wide-ranging religious exceptions undeniably cause harm and therefore cannot be justified.

      Like

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