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:
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:
(a) means a person’s physical features relating to sex; and
(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.
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).
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.
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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*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.”