Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Two Years Old

Two years ago today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in religious schools against discrimination. He stated, unequivocally: ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against.’ 

This promise was made following the leaking of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review’s recommendations, which sought to clarify but not repeal the existing ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids just because of who they are, and the significant public backlash it received from people who did not realise these schools already enjoyed this extraordinary special privilege under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Morrison further committed to introducing amendments to prevent religious schools mistreating LGBT students in this way before the end of 2018, saying: ‘I believe this view is shared across the Parliament and we should use the next fortnight to ensure this matter is addressed.’ 

Scott Morrison has reneged on his promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. Brazenly. Deliberately. And without any apparent consideration of the serious harms his broken promise will cause to a generation of LGBT kids.

Morrison’s Government never even bothered to introduce a Bill into Parliament to attempt to implement his commitment, let alone tried to have it passed.

When the Greens, with the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018, and then Labor, with the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018, both sought to do so themselves, the Liberal/National Government referred these Bills to Senate inquiries rather than debating them.

Even after those inquiries, which took place in late 2018 and over the summer of 2018/19 respectively, handed down their reports, the Morrison Government failed to support those proposals and still did not propose a Bill of their own. Instead, they stalled and effectively counted down the clock until the 2019 Federal election. 

On the very last day before the writs were issued for that election, Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the issue of ‘religious exceptions’ generally to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for a detailed, 12-month review. 

After the Morrison Government was re-elected on 18 May 2019, they returned to power with even less sense of urgency to give effect to his promise from October 2018. Instead, they gave priority to preparing two Exposure Drafts of the Religious Discrimination Bill, in late 2019 and early 2020, legislation that would

  • Make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ minorities, including LGBTI people
  • Make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to provide services that benefit minorities, including LGBTI people
  • Make it easier for religious organisations to discriminate against others, and
  • Make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion, including for LGBTI people.

On the other hand, they first delayed the ALRC’s reporting timeline until December 2020. And then, on 2 March 2020, the Attorney-General amended the ALRC’s reporting deadline to be ‘12 months from the date the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Parliament.’ 

That change alone is enough to guarantee Morrison’s promise – which, let’s remember, was to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018 – will not happen this term.

First, the Religious Discrimination Bill may not pass (and, in its current form, it most definitely should not). Second, even if it passes, it will not happen until the first half of 2021 at the earliest. At a minimum, that makes the ALRC’s new reporting deadline the first half of 2022, which is when the next federal election is due (by May 2022, although there is increasing speculation it will instead be held in late 2021).

Even after the ALRC ultimately delivers its report, it usually takes a Government at least six months to prepare a formal response, and six months again to introduce legislation based on its response. 

Which means, even if the Government still feels bound by Morrison’s original promise from October 2018, even if the Liberal/National Government is re-elected, even if Morrison remains Prime Minister, even if the ALRC recommends how to implement his commitment, even if the Government accepts the ALRC recommendation, even if the Government prepares and introduces legislation to make this change and even if Parliament passes it, that legislation will not happen until 2023, and will likely not take effect until 2024.

A student in Year 7 when Scott Morrison first promised to urgently protect LGBT kids in religious schools against discrimination will finish Year 12 before his Government gives effect to it – if they ever do.

This isn’t just any ordinary broken promise either. In raising hopes that some of the most vulnerable members of our community might finally be legally protected, and then comprehensively dashing them, Morrison has broken hearts, while leaving a trail of broken lives in his wake.

That’s because anti-discrimination exceptions allowing religious schools to mistreat LGBT students just because of who they are inflict serious, real-life harm on those kids.

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids through the hateful things they say to them. And they can harm LGBT kids by not saying anything positive at all, leaving children who are struggling to figure out who they are to suffer, alone, in the all-enveloping silence of the closet.

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids by expelling them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But, generally, they don’t need to – the threat alone is enough. Where a student does bravely decide to come out despite that school’s prejudiced views, the school can ‘encourage parents to find a more suitable environment for their child’ (and what parent would force a school to expel their child in such circumstances?).

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids in myriad ways that fall short of expulsion too, from special rules targeting same-sex attraction, and erasing gender diversity.

Above all, religious schools can harm LGBT kids by creating a toxic environment, where those students know they will not receive safety and protection if they need it – something other kids figure out all too quickly, and take advantage of with impunity. 

I know the above from bitter personal experience – barely surviving five years at a religious boarding school in Brisbane in the early 1990s.

When they weren’t saying hateful things about my sexual orientation (like the pastor who suggested that, for kids struggling with ‘confusion’, killing themselves was not the worst possible outcome), they said nothing at all, leaving a dangerous void in which homophobia can, and did, flourish.

Their explicit rules against same-sex attraction didn’t need to be enforced either – all students knew being ‘out and proud’ simply wasn’t an option. Worst of all, the school’s anti-LGBT stance meant other boarders were free to ‘police’ any students who displayed even the subtlest signs of difference: I was subjected to both verbal, and at times physical, abuse.

The most depressing part of all is the realisation that, in many parts of Australia, little has changed in the past 25 years. While, thankfully, Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory have all legislated to remove the special privileges allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids, other jurisdictions have not. 

In 2020, it is appalling and infuriating that religious schools in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia can still legally mistreat LGBT students simply because of who they are. 

And they still do, too. As Oliver Griffith wrote, in 2018, about his own, more-recent experiences at a religious school (in an article called Growing up gay in a Christian school had lasting effects on my life’):

‘Growing up gay in an environment like this is a challenge because you are faced with your realisation of your own identity and at the same time are taught by people you trust that you are a deviant, a danger to society, and otherwise should be shunned from the community… the open criticism of homosexuality meant that I was always aware that revealing who I was to the people around me could result in being ostracised from my friends and the teachers I had learnt to respect. Despite becoming aware of my sexuality at the age of 14, I never revealed this publicly until I was in my 20s.’

My, and Oliver’s, stories of survival are by no means unique. And, of course, there are the countless stories we will never get to hear, because those students took their own lives as a direct consequence of the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of religious schools, all legally supported by our Commonwealth Government.

The serious harms caused by the special exceptions provided to religious schools is backed up by the evidence. As expert in this area, Dr Tiffany Jones, wrote in the conclusion of their submission to the 2018 Senate inquiry titled ‘The Wrong of ‘Discrimination Rights’:

The data outlined in this submission adds to the author’s past submissions on [Sex Discrimination Act] Drafts citing evidence showing that the majority of LGBT students who attended religious schools rated them as homophobic spaces and that many LGBT students in religious schools suffered attempts to be ‘converted to heterosexuality’ or were forced out of their schools (eg in 2012). This submission shows new evidence that this trend continues in Australian religious schools, especially for people on the trans-spectrum. This is despite the fact that conversion attempts are widely and strongly denounced by peak psychology bodies.

Past submissions from the author showed there are significantly fewer policy-based protections for LGBT students in religious schools, which is highly problematic as policy protections are associated with decreased risks of experiencing homophobic and transphobic violence and decreased risks of self-harm and suicide rates for the group. However, the 2018 data shows that anti-LGBT conversion approaches contribute to harm the wellbeing of not only LGBT students, but most people attending those schools – who are significantly more likely to consider self-harm and suicide, and attempt self-harm and suicide.

The 2018 data show ‘gay’ is still the top insult in Australian schools. Trans-spectrum people suffer from more staff targeting just attending school as legally enforced. If our nation requires youth to attend school, and insists on funding religious schools, then those schools must be safe. The small portion of extremist conservative religious schools of Australia (not all religious schools, but those taking advantage of the SDA’s exemptions which effectively endorse anti-LGBT approaches) provide an educational environment lacking in basic social competencies for entering a modern diverse Australia and following its laws outside of the unrealistic ‘bubble’ of these schools. We need to ensure safety and better citizenship education at these schools. Not only for LGBTs, but for all students experiencing the wellbeing and educational deficits of discrimination on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. [emphasis in original]

Dr Jones is correct – if we compel students to attend school, then we must ensure that all school environments are safe for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids.

Currently, they are not. Religious schools are legally allowed to harm LGBT students, by what they say, and what they don’t say. By what they do (in enforcing anti-LGBT policies and rules), and what they don’t need to (because of the threat hanging over the heads of LGBT kids). And most of all, religious schools are legally permitted to harm LGBT students by creating toxic cultures in which homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and violence can thrive.

Two years ago today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. He has done nothing in the two years since to give effect to this commitment.

While Scott Morrison might be able to walk away from his words, he cannot walk away from his responsibility for the serious harm being inflicted, needlessly, on another generation of LGBT kids because of his inaction. Harm that will still be felt by too many long after his time as Prime Minister comes to an end.

**********

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/ or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Scott Morrison’s broken promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination turns two years old today (11 October 2020).

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