Letter to Andrew Barr re ACT Discrimination Act Reform

Mr Andrew Barr

ACT Chief Minister

Via: barr@act.gov.au

CC: Mr Gordon Ramsay

ACT Attorney-General

Via: ramsay@act.gov.au

9 September 2020

Dear Chief Minister

Reforming ‘religious exceptions’ in the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT)

I am writing to you about the religious exceptions contained in the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT), and specifically the special privileges they provide to religious organisations to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity (among other attributes).

First, I would like to congratulate you, and your Government, on the passage of the Discrimination Amendment Act 2018, which removed the ability of religious schools in the ACT to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff members.

That reform was an essential step forward on the long path towards LGBT equality. As well as providing security to LGBT employees, it will benefit generations of young people who will be able to access education without fear of discrimination on the basis of who they are.

However, I would also take this opportunity to remind you this important reform remains incomplete – because it has not been extended to religious organisations outside education, including other vital health, community and social services.

When you announced these changes in October 2018, it was reported that: 

Mr Barr said he was personally disappointed discrimination was “arguably still possible” under the territory’s current laws. The Government will also undertake an “extensive audit” of all territory laws and close any further gaps and loopholes found.

You reiterated this commitment in your speech on the Bill during debate in the ACT Legislative Assembly in November of that year: 

We are also committed to undertaking a full audit of ACT laws to assist us to eliminate any further areas of discrimination against LGBTIQ Canberrans in the territory’s statute books and to develop a reform package to address any matters identified. As a human rights jurisdiction, we have to ensure that the human rights of everyone in our community are reflected not just in law but in the day-to-day practice in our lives.

I would argue that laws that allow religious health, community and social services to discriminate against LGBT employees and people accessing those services are impediments that should be removed to improve the day-to-day lives of LGBT Canberrans.

During that same speech, you defended the proposed changes on the basis that they were based on the existing protections in Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998

However, in moving quickly we have chosen to follow a safe and tested path, as the limited exception we have adopted in this bill is modelled on the law that has been in existence for many years in Tasmania.

And it is true that the new ACT framework which applies to discrimination by religious schools is the same as the framework which has existed in Tasmania for more than two decades.

However, the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 protections are not limited to religious schools, but instead protect LGBT employees and people accessing services against discrimination by religious organisations across all areas of public life.

I would argue that, if the ACT wants to base its Discrimination Act on the nation’s best practice laws, then it should replicate the removal of religious exceptions in scope as well.

Finally, in your speech to the ACT Legislative Assembly in November 2018 you expressed the following views:

Let us be clear: the existence of these broad-based exceptions in law should no longer be there. There should not be those exceptions anymore. That is what this legislation is about. A broad-based exception in law designed to protect people from discrimination has to be consistent with the values of equality and social inclusion that we hold dear in this territory. That is why we are moving on this issue. It is because it is unacceptable that personal attributes like whether you are pregnant, your race, your relationship status, your gender identity or your sexuality should be a reason for you to be kicked out of school or no longer able to teach in an educational institution.

These are indeed fine sentiments. But they reinforce the fact the job is half-finished. The ‘existence of broad-based exceptions in law’ – outside of education – continues in section 32 of the Discrimination Act 1991.

It is just as ‘unacceptable that personal attributes like whether you are pregnant, your race, your relationship status, your gender identity or your sexuality should be a reason for you to be kicked out of’ any other health, community or social service, or ‘no longer able to’ work in these same organisations.

With the ACT Assembly election to be held on 17 October 2020, I am seeking your commitment that, if re-elected, you and your Government will finish the job, by reforming section 32 of the Discrimination Act 1991 so that it only allows discrimination on the attribute of religious conviction, and not in relation to other attributes including sexuality or gender identity.

In doing so, you would not only be fulfilling your own commitments from October and November 2018, but you would be improving the day-to-day lives of many LGBT Canberrans.

Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information to respond to this request. Please also be advised that any response received will be published at www.alastairlawrie.net

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Will ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr commit to ‘finishing the job’ on religious exceptions in the Discrimination Act 1991?

What’s Wrong With the ACT Discrimination Act 1991?

This post is part of a series looking at Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, analysing them to determine how well, or in many cases how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from discrimination and vilification. The other articles in the series can be found here.

In each post, the laws of each jurisdiction are assessed in relation to the following three areas:

  • Protected Attributes
  • Religious Exceptions, and
  • Anti-Vilification Coverage.

Based on these criteria, the Australian Capital Territory Discrimination Act 1991 was already better than average in terms of its LGBTI anti-discrimination laws. The good news is that, as a result of the passage of the Discrimination Amendment Act 2016 and the Discrimination Amendment Act 2018, the ACT’s LGBTI protections have improved further.

However, while many of the previous issues with this Act have been remedied, this doesn’t mean the ACT’s law is without faults – chief among them the ongoing broad exceptions provided to religious organisations (other than schools) allowing them to discriminate against LGBTI people.

Nevertheless, let’s focus on the positives first:

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Protected Attributes

The ACT Discrimination Act 1991 includes sexuality as a protected attribute in section 7(1)(w), which is defined in the Act’s dictionary as ‘heterosexuality, homosexuality (including lesbianism) or bisexuality’. This includes all of LGB people, and is better than some jurisdictions (including NSW, which excludes bisexuals), but could be improved by adopting the more inclusive term ‘sexual orientation’.

As a result of the Justice Legislation Amendment Act 2020, the Act’s protected attribute of gender identity in section 7(1)(g) is now defined as:

the gender expression or gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person, with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth.

Note Gender identity includes the gender identity that the person has or has had in the past, or is thought to have or have had in the past.

This includes all trans and gender diverse people, including those with non-binary gender identities.

Finally, 2016 amendments added intersex status as a protected attribute in section 7(1)(k), defined as ‘status as an intersex person’ – however, intersex advocates called for discrimination protections to be based on ‘sex characteristics’ in the influential March 2017 Darlington Statement.

In August 2020, the ACT Government responded, replacing intersex status with sex characteristics, with a definition based on the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10 (from the Act’s Dictionary:

sex characteristics-

(a) means a person’s physical features relating to sex; and

(b) includes-

(i) genitalia and other sexual and reproductive parts of the person’s anatomy; and

(ii) the person’s chromosomes, hormones and secondary physical features emerging as a result of puberty.

The ACT is now one of only four Australian jurisdictions to provide coverage for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender diverse and intersex people, the others being the Commonwealth, Tasmania and South Australia, and more importantly has up to date definitions for all attributes.

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Anti-Vilification Coverage

The ACT’s vilification protections also cover all parts of the LGBTI community, with prohibitions on vilification on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and intersex status (making it only the second jurisdiction, after Tasmania, to cover anti-intersex vilification – although again note the calls by intersex organisations for this term to be replaced by the protected attribute of sex characteristics).

In fact, the ACT’s LGBTI vilification protections are now the equal best in the country, given the offence of serious vilification, contained in section 750 of the Criminal Code 2002, applies to serious vilification on the basis of intersex status (the other jurisdiction with best practice anti-vilification laws is Tasmania).

**********

Religious Exceptions

On the basis of the above, it is clear the ACT now has close-to-best practice anti-discrimination laws in terms of their protected attributes (covering all parts of the LGBTI community) and anti-vilification coverage (again, protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people).

Alas, the Discrimination Act 1991 falls down (from its pedestal) when it comes to religious exceptions, aka special provisions that allow religious organisations to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The primary religious exceptions are outlined in section 32 Religious bodies, which states that:

“Part 3 [which contains the prohibitions of discrimination] does not apply in relation to-

(a) the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order; or

(b) the training or education of people seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or

(c) the selection or appointment of people to exercise functions for the purposes of, or in connection with, any religious observance or practice; or

(d) any other act or practice (other than a defined act) of a body established for religious purposes, if the act or practice conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion and is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

As has been noted in previous posts, the first three sub-sections ((a), (b) and (c)), can potentially be justified on the basis that there is a direct connection with the appointment and training of religious office-holders, or the conduct of religious ceremonies.

However, sub-section 32(d) is effectively a blanket exception that allows any religious organisation – including religious-operated hospitals and community and social services – to discriminate against LGBTI employees, and LGBTI people accessing their services. This is clearly unacceptable.

Nevertheless, recent amendments passed by the ACT Parliament in the wake of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review have at least ensured that these religious exceptions do not permit religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students or teachers and other staff.

The Discrimination Amendment Act 2018 abolished the specific exception for ‘Educational institutions conducted for religious purposes’ which was previously found in section 33 (see footnotes*).

Importantly, it also amended the general religious exception in section 32(1)(d) so that it does not apply to ‘defined acts’, which section 32(2) defines as:

means an act or practice in relation to-

(a) the employment of contracting of a person by the body to work in an educational institution; or

(b) the admission, treatment or continued enrolment of a person as a student at an educational institution.

In short, religious schools now cannot discriminate against LGBTI students, teachers and other staff on the basis of their sexuality, gender identity or intersex status.

The ACT Government has instead adopted the best-practice Tasmanian approach where religious schools can discriminate in terms of the admission of students and employment of teachers on the grounds of the student or teacher’s respective religious belief (although they’ve gone further than Tasmania by requiring any school that wishes to discriminate in this way to publish its policies up-front – section new section 46(2)-(5)).

However, the ACT Government has left in place – at least for the moment – the special privileges that allow religious organisations other than schools, such as hospitals, community and social services, to discriminate against employees and people accessing those services on the basis of their sexuality, gender identity or intersex status.

There can be no justification for such wide-ranging discrimination. Hopefully, with the issue of discrimination by religious schools now addressed, the ACT Government can move on to limiting discrimination by these other bodies too – although time is running out before the next election, due on 17 October 2020.

andrewbarr

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who has successfully removed the right of religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students and teachers, but still needs to address religious exceptions for other organisations.

Summary

As a result of amendments in both 2016 and 2018, the ACT Discrimination Act 1991 now protects all sections of the LGBTI community from discrimination. It also features the equal best anti-vilification coverage of any state, territory or federal framework in Australia, and has prohibited discrimination by religious schools against LGBTI students, teachers and other staff.

However, the ACT Government still needs to take action to limit the ability of other religious organisations, including hospitals, community and social services, to discriminate against employees and people accessing their services on the basis of sexuality, gender identity or intersex status.

 

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Footnotes:

NB Footnotes [i] to [iv] have been deleted as a result of editing.

*The Discrimination Amendment Act 2018 abolished section 33 of the Act, which previously provided:

“Educational institutions conducted for religious purposes

(1) Section 10 or 13 [which prohibit discrimination against applicants, employees and contract workers] does not make it unlawful for a person (the first person) to discriminate against someone else in relation to-

(a) employment as a member of the staff of an educational institution; or

(b) a position as a contract worker that involves doing work in an educational institution;

if the institution is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings or a particular religion or creed, and the first person so discriminates in good faith to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

(2) Section 18 [which prohibits discrimination in relation to education] does not make it unlawful for a person (the first person) to discriminate against someone else in relation to the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first person so discriminates in good faith to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

Letter to State and Territory Labor Leaders Calling for Them to Support a Binding Vote for Marriage Equality

It is now almost three months since I wrote to the Federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, calling on him to take the lead on marriage equality by supporting a binding vote within the Labor Party (https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/01/24/bill-shorten-will-you-lead-on-marriage-equality/ ).

While I continue to wait for a response to that correspondence, we should remember there are other parliamentary leaders of the Labor Party in Australia, who also have a duty to stand up for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) members of their respective communities, and for the LGBTI members of their state and territory branches of the ALP.

The following is my letter to these leaders, asking them to support a binding vote for marriage equality in the lead-up to the National Conference in July (with a slightly more detailed letter sent to the first out parliamentary leader of a Labor Party in Australia, and the first out head of any Australian Government, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr).

Mr Luke Foley, MP

Leader of the NSW Opposition

Parliament House

Macquarie Street

SYDNEY NSW 2000

leader.opposition@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Monday 20 April 2015

Dear Mr Foley

PLEASE SUPPORT A BINDING VOTE IN FAVOUR OF MARRIAGE EQUALITY IN THE LEAD-UP TO THE 2015 ALP NATIONAL CONFERENCE

As you are aware, there are now approximately three months left until the 2015 National Conference of the Australian Labor Party.

One of the issues to be considered at this event is actually unfinished business from the previous National Conference, held in December 2011, and that is the position that the ALP adopts on marriage equality.

While that gathering took the welcome step of making support for marriage equality an official part of the platform, it also immediately undermined that policy stance by ensuring all MPs were to be given a conscience vote when it came before Parliament.

That decision – to ‘support’ marriage equality, but then make that support unenforceable – guaranteed that any Bill would fail in the last Commonwealth Parliament, and continues to make passage in the current Parliament extremely difficult (even with any Liberal Party conscience vote).

However, you, and the delegates to this year’s National Conference, have the opportunity to help right that wrong. And make no mistake, the conscience vote is inherently wrong, not just because of its practical impact in making legislative change unobtainable, but also because it is unprincipled, and un-Labor.

Having a conscience vote on something like marriage equality, which is a matter of fundamental importance for many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, says that our human rights are optional, our equality is optional.

A conscience vote makes it clear that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are acceptable, that the second-class treatment of our relationships is officially condoned, that Labor Party MPs are free to treat LGBTI Australians as ‘lesser’ simply because of who we are. In essence, a conscience vote on marriage equality is unconscionable.

A non-binding vote on marriage equality is also ‘un-Labor’ because it is contrary to the principles of collective organising upon which the party is founded. The idea of solidarity is supposed to reflect core philosophy, not simply act as an empty slogan, and definitely not something that is abandoned simply because some caucus members cannot abide the thought LGBTI people might enjoy the same rights that they do.

A conscience vote on this issue, from a party that adopts binding votes on nearly everything else (from refugee policy to metadata and almost all things in between), also makes it difficult for the Australian community, and the LGBTI community in particular, to take the platform position in favour of marriage equality seriously.

This is something that can, and must, be changed at this year’s National Conference, given only it has the power to introduce a binding vote in favour of marriage equality for all ALP MPs.

Acknowledging that there will be groups both inside and outside the ALP who will strongly oppose any moves to support full LGBTI equality, achieving a binding vote on marriage equality will be difficult, and therefore requires the support of parliamentary leaders within the party who are willing to do just that, to ‘lead’.

Which makes the question at the heart of this letter: as leader of the NSW parliamentary Labor Party, will you help lead on marriage equality?

It’s time for you, and the other state and territory leaders, to use the influence of your positions to help support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality, thereby declaring once and for all that LGBTI human rights are not optional, that LGBTI equality is absolutely not optional.

Doing so would signal to the many hundreds of LGBTI members of the NSW ALP, and the many, many thousands of LGBTI members of the NSW community, that the Labor Party will stand up for all people, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Adopting a binding vote for marriage equality would send an incredibly powerful message, showing that the modern Labor Party is a genuinely inclusive, and genuinely progressive, political movement, and one that is fit to lead in the 21st century – and simultaneously show how backwards, and out-of-touch, the Liberal and National Parties are on this issue.

In short, the option to support a binding vote on marriage equality is full of opportunity, with multiple benefits and few, if any, adverse consequences. I sincerely hope it is an opportunity you, and other state and territory Labor leaders, are willing to grasp, and grasp firmly.

If you do, you can help make marriage equality a genuine possibility in 2016 or early 2017, rather than something which will continue to be delayed until 2018, 2019 or even into the 2020s.

For the benefit of my fiancé Steve and myself, and the thousands of other LGBTI-inclusive couples who are still waiting for the same right to marry which other couples can simply take for granted, please support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality at the 2015 National Conference, and help make our long-overdue weddings a reality.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who announced he supported marriage equality in February. Will he now back that up with support for a binding vote to help make marriage equality a reality?

NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who announced he supported marriage equality in February 2015. Will he now back that up with support for a binding vote within the Labor Party to help make marriage equality a reality?

Additional letters sent to:

The Hon Daniel Andrews Premier of Victoria Level 1, 1 Treasury Place East Melbourne VIC 3002 daniel.andrews@parliament.vic.gov.au

The Hon Annastacia Palaszczuk MP Premier of Queensland Level 15, Executive Building 100 George Street BRISBANE QLD 4000 thepremier@premiers.qld.gov.au

The Hon Mark McGowan MLA Leader of the WA Opposition Parliament House Perth WA 6000 leader@loop.wa.gov.au

The Hon Jay Weatherill MP Premier of South Australia GPO Box 2343 ADELAIDE SA 5001 Online contact form: http://www.premier.sa.gov.au/index.php/contact

The Hon Bryan Green MLA Leader of the Tasmanian Opposition House of Assembly Parliament House Hobart TAS 7000 bryan.green@parliament.tas.gov.au

Mr Andrew Barr MLA ACT Chief Minister GPO Box 1020 Canberra ACT 2601 barr@act.gov.au

Mr Michael Gunner MLA Leader of the NT Opposition GPO Box 3700 Darwin NT 0801 opposition.leader@nt.gov.au

* And a very rapid response from the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, confirming his support for a binding vote:

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