Submission re: South Australia’s Equal Opportunity (Religious Bodies) Amendment Bill 2020

22 November 2020

Attorney-General’s Department

Legislative Services

GPO Box 464

Adelaide SA 5001

Via email: LLPSubmissions@sa.gov.au

To whom it may concern

Submission re: Equal Opportunity (Religious Bodies) Amendment Bill 2020

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission on the draft Equal Opportunity (Religious Bodies) Amendment Bill 2020.

I do so as a long-term advocate for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and as someone with particular expertise in anti-discrimination legislation, including comparative analysis of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections across Australia.[i]

First, I welcome the intention of the draft legislation, which is to narrow the scope of the excessive and extreme religious exceptions currently found in section 50 of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA). These exceptions allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI South Australians in a wide range of everyday situations, causing direct and significant harm to a vulnerable population.

Second, I particularly welcome proposed section 50(1)(c)(ix), which would have the effect of protecting LGBTI students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are. This protection is long overdue, with change in South Australia made necessary because of the failure of the Morrison Government to deliver on his October 2018 promise to prohibit such discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).[ii]

However, while passage of this legislation would represent an improvement in terms of the rights of LGBTI South Australians to participate in public life without fear of discrimination, I would like to highlight three major problems with the Bill as drafted:

  1. The scope of areas where LGBTI people will be protected – or not

The draft Equal Opportunity (Religious Bodies) Amendment Bill 2020 effectively creates a ‘carve-out’ from the general religious exception found in section 50(c)[iii] of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA) so that it does not apply in relation to certain areas of public life.

This approach appears to be based on section 37(2) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), which provides that the general religious exception in section 37(1) of that Act does not allow aged care services operated by religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people accessing those services (although, disappointingly, it continues to allow religious aged care services to discriminate against LGBT employees).

It is encouraging that the draft South Australian Bill extends this carve-out to a wider range of areas of public life, including:

  • Children’s education
  • Health care and disability support
  • Aged care
  • Emergency accommodation
  • Public housing, and
  • Foster care placement.

In another welcome development, the carve-out also applies to employees in these areas (other than in relation to educational institutions, an issue which is discussed further below).

However, the carve-out approach has inherent limitations. In particular, the boundary between areas of public life where LGBTI people will be protected, and those where they will not, may appear arbitrary and difficult to justify.

For example, while proposed sections 50(1)(c)(ix) and 50(1)(c)(x) mean that religious pre-schools, primary schools and secondary schools will not be able to discriminate against LGBTI students, the absence of a similar carve-out for tertiary education means that religious universities will nevertheless still be able to discriminate against LGBTI students.

In an environment when many university-age students are exploring and ultimately affirming their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, I do not believe it is acceptable to allow religious universities to discriminate against those students simply because of who they are (and especially where religious universities use public funds to do so).

In a similar way, while it is pleasing that emergency accommodation services operated by religious organisations will not be able to turn away LGBTI people in need of their assistance, it seems arbitrary that other essential service providers (such as food services or other forms of welfare support)[iv] will be able to reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.[v]

Finally, proposed section 50(1)(c)(i) would ensure that religious foster care agencies will not be able to discriminate against LGBTI people (including employees, potential foster carers and children being placed). However, the absence of a similar provision in relation to adoption agencies presumably means that religious organisations providing that particular service will be able to discriminate in this way.

This double-standard – where rainbow families are ‘good enough’ to be foster carers, but can still be rejected as adoptive parents just because of who they are – cannot be justified.

Therefore, if the carve-out approach is retained, in my view it should at a minimum be extended to include tertiary education, broader welfare services and adoption agencies.

Recommendation 1: If the ‘carve-out’ approach in section 50(1)(c) of the draft Bill is retained, the following areas of public life should be added:

  • Tertiary education
  • Welfare services generally, and
  • Adoption agencies.

2. The ongoing ability of religious organisations to discriminate on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status

I have framed the above recommendation in a qualified manner because I believe the ‘carve-out’ approach is itself problematic. That is because, in any area of public life that is not listed in section 50(1)(c), religious organisations will continue to be permitted to discriminate on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status, including in terms of who they employ and who they provide their services to.

This will obviously have a negative impact on LGBTI South Australians by restricting their ability to participate in public life without fear of discrimination. And it falls well below the best practice approach to religious exceptions, which has been adopted in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas), and in a more limited way the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT).[vi]

The Tasmanian ‘gold standard’ allows religious organisations to discriminate – but only on the basis of religious belief or activity, and not on other grounds, such as sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex variations of sex characteristics.

For example, section 51 allows religious organisations to discriminate in employment in the following way:

(1) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment if the participation of the person in the teaching, observance or practice of a particular religious is a genuine occupational qualification or requirement in relation to the employment.

(2) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment in an educational institution that is or is to be conducted in accordance with the tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion if the discrimination is in order to enable, or better enable, the educational institution to be conducted in accordance with those tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices.

Section 51A then allows discrimination on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to enrolment at religious educational institutions (although not after the point of admission), while section 52 allows discrimination by religious organisations on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to ‘participation in religious observance’.[vii]

From my perspective, this is a fairer way in which to allow religious organisations to prioritise people from their own faith, while not infringing upon the rights of others – including LGBTI people – to live their lives free from discrimination.

I strongly urge the South Australian Government to improve the proposed Equal Opportunity (Religious Bodies) Amendment Bill 2020 by moving to a model where religious organisations are only allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity, and not in relation to other protected attributes, including gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status.

Recommendation 2: The South Australian Government should consider adopting the Tasmanian best practice approach to religious exceptions, allowing religious organisations to discriminate on the basis of religious belief and activity, but not in relation to other protected attributes including gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status.

3. The ongoing ability of religious schools and universities to discriminate against LGBTI teachers, lecturers and other staff

The final, and arguably most important, problem with the Equal Opportunity (Religious Bodies) Amendment Bill 2020 is something it does not do – it does not remove the ability of religious education institutions (including schools and universities) to discriminate against LGBTI teachers, lecturers and other staff (which is currently permitted under section 34(3) of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA)).

In my view, this exception is unacceptable, for several reasons.

First, it is unfair on LGBTI teachers, lecturers and other staff. They may be the best qualified person for a job, but they can be denied employment (or, where they already work for a religious school or university, fired), on the basis of something which has no connection to their ability to perform the role. This is especially egregious given the large amounts of public funding provided to these institutions.

Second, it is unfair to students generally – who are denied being taught by the best possible teacher or lecturer for their class.

Third, it is unfair on LGBTI students in particular. Not only are they denied positive role models, they are also enrolled in an educational institution which has adopted a hostile attitude towards LGBTI teachers, lecturers and other staff, something which will inevitably influence the broader culture of the school or university.

Fourth, I do not believe the supposed ‘safeguard’ contained in sections 34(3)(b), (c) and (d) – which requires educational institutions wishing to rely on this exception to have a written policy stating its (discriminatory) position, that is provided to employees and potential employees, and on request to students, their families and members of the public – is sufficient.[viii]

Transparency doesn’t make prejudice any less real, or any more acceptable. LGBTI teachers, lecturers and other staff members can still be denied employment simply because of their gender identity, sexual orientation or intersex status – attributes which have absolutely nothing to do with their ability to perform the role.

Further, and even more damagingly, LGBTI students at these institutions who are aware of such policies will be acutely aware their presence there is only ‘tolerated’ because the institution is legally prohibited from discriminating against them (in other words, they would discriminate against these students if they could). They will know that they will never be truly accepted for who they are.

This last reason alone justifies removal of the exception for religious educational institutions in section 34(3) of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA) and instead prohibit all religious schools and universities from discriminating against LGBTI employees.

Recommendation 3: The exception allowing religious education institutions to discriminate against LGBTI teachers, lecturers and other staff in section 34(3) of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA) must be repealed, with these institutions prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status.

In conclusion, I should reiterate that, despite the problems identified above, the draft Equal Opportunity (Religious Bodies) Amendment Bill 2020 would, if passed in its current form, still significantly improve the rights of LGBTI people in South Australia to go about their lives free from discrimination.

In particular, I welcome the commitment of the South Australian Government to protect LGBTI students at religious schools against discrimination. This is much needed, and would have an immediate and appreciable benefit for vulnerable students across the state.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe the proposed legislation can be substantially strengthened, including by extending the scope of areas in which LGBTI people are protected to include tertiary education, welfare services and adoption agencies – or, even better, to adopt the best practice Tasmanian approach to religious exceptions (as discussed earlier).

Above all, I strongly encourage the South Australian Government to remove the ability of religious educational institutions to discriminate against LGBTI teachers, lecturers and other staff members, so that these places can become welcoming and inclusive places for all people seeking to learn, or impart knowledge, irrespective of their gender identity, sexual orientation or intersex status.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this submission. Please contact me at the details provided should you wish to clarify any of the above, or for further information.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Footnotes:


[i] See: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ii] For more information, see: Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Two Years Old

[iii] ‘This Part does not render unlawful discrimination in relation to- any other practice of a body established for religious purposes that conforms with the precepts of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.’

[iv] In many cases, these services will be using local, state and/or Commonwealth funding to do so. In nearly all cases, they will be relying on tax exemptions supporting them to carry out this work.

[v] Intersex status is the protected attribute currently included in the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA). However, I support the replacement of intersex status with ‘sex characteristics’, as called for by Intersex Human Rights Australia, as well as intersex advocates in the March 2017 Darlington Statement.

[vi] The ACT has adopted the Tasmanian approach in relation to religious schools (only allowing discrimination on the basis of religious conviction, and not on the ground of sexuality, gender identity or sex characteristics), but not for other religious organisations.

[vii] Noting that section 52(d) of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas) is quite generous: ‘A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to- (d) any other act that- (i) is carried out in accordance with the doctrine of a particular religion; and (ii) is necessary to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of any person of that religion.’

[viii] Even if, in some circumstances, it may be useful in applying external pressure on religious educational institutions whose employment practices fall short of community standards.

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