Submission re NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission, in response to the NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report (Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion: Designs for a future school curriculum), released in October 2019.

 

I make this submission as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and as someone who has consistently called for an inclusive national, and NSW, Personal Development, Health & Physical Education (PDHPE) syllabus.

 

In this context, I wish to express my disappointment with the Interim Review, which ignores the needs of LGBTI students, and potentially makes the introduction of a genuinely-inclusive PDHPE syllabus more difficult.

 

For example, in describing ‘the changing student population’ on page 5, the Review discusses the ‘size and diversity of today’s student population’, including highlighting metro versus regional, rural and remote, public versus religious/independent schools, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students who speak a language other than English at home, and students with disability – but there is no mention of LGBTI students.

 

This absence continues throughout the rest of the document, including wherever there is a focus on meeting the needs of diverse students (such as the section on ‘an inclusive curriculum’ on pages 65-66: ‘within each school subject, the curriculum should be designed as far as possible to be inclusive of, and accessible to, every student’). In fact, LGBTI students, and related issues, do not appear once in the 116 pages of the Interim Report.

 

This exclusion is even more concerning in the context of ‘Reform Direction 1: Creating a less crowded curriculum’. While I understand there is some pushback on ‘overcrowded and overly prescriptive syllabuses [that] create pressure on teachers and schools’ (page 6 of the Interim Report Consultation Workbook), I am worried this proposal will in fact make schools less safe for LGBTI students.

 

For example, one comment highlighted in the Interim Report implies that a range of topics have been unnecessarily added to the curriculum, and should therefore be considered for removal, including ‘anxiety/depression, resiliency training, childhood obesity, road safety, water safety, Asian studies, healthy school canteens, bush fire safety awareness, languages, cyber safety and anti-bullying’ (page 27, emphasis added.)

 

Surely, anti-bullying, and attempting to create a safe environment for all students in which to learn, is actually a core requirement of each and every school?

 

But the bigger problem of Reform Direction 1 is that it proposes a ’15 to 20 per cent reduction’ in the content of each and every syllabus – when, as I submitted during its development, the current PDHPE syllabus excludes LGBTI students and content that is relevant to their needs, and consequently needs to have content added.

 

As I wrote at the beginning of 2019:[i]

 

*****

 

the new PDHPE curriculum is entirely unfit for the 21st century, contributing to the ongoing invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) content, and therefore of LGBTI students.

 

This can be seen in a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is in its use – or, more accurately, lack of use – of the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex themselves.

 

In the 138 pages of the syllabus, these words occur three times each. However, two out of these three appearances are found in the document’s glossary – with a definition of each term, and then as part of the broader definition of LGBTI people.

 

But teachers do not teach the glossary to their students. Instead, they are only required to teach the content for each year stage of the syllabus. And the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex can be found only once in the prescribed content, together on page 96:

 

‘investigate community health resources to evaluate how accessible they are for marginalised individuals and groups and propose changes to promote greater inclusiveness and accessibility eg people in rural and remote areas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, people with disability.’

 

The problem with this is that LGBTI comes after ‘for example’ and therefore even referring to LGBTI people in this exercise is, on a prima facie reading, optional.

 

This issue – the status of content that appears after ‘eg’ in the syllabus – was raised, by myself and others, during the consultation process. The answer at the time was that whether this information was taught was at the discretion of the school and/or teacher. This appears to be confirmed in the consultation report, which states on page 18 that:

 

‘The content defines what students are expected to know and do as they work towards syllabus outcomes. Content examples clarify the intended learning. Teachers will make decisions about content regarding the sequence, emphasis and any adjustments required based on the needs, interests, abilities and prior learning of students.’

 

In practice, LGBTI people appear just once in the entire NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus, as part of an exercise about marginalised groups and inclusiveness, but schools and/or teachers can choose to remove even this most cursory of references.

 

This marginalisation, and exclusion, of LGBTI content and students is simply not good enough.

 

Another cause of the curriculum’s problems can be found if we return to the glossary, and inspect the definition of sexuality:

 

‘A central aspect of being human throughout life. It is influenced by an interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors. It is experienced and expressed in thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships.’

 

On a philosophical level, this is actually quite an inclusive and even progressive view of the complexity of human sexuality. But on a practical level, the absence of specificity in this definition undermines any obligation for schools and/or teachers to teach about real-world diversity of sexual orientation.

 

This lack of prescription means that, on page 96 – which is the only place in the general syllabus where ‘sexuality’ appears not following an ‘eg’ (and therefore is the only reference that isn’t optional) – content to ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’ does not necessarily include lesbian, gay or bisexual sexualities.

 

It is a similar story in terms of gender, with the glossary definition (‘Refers to the concepts of male and female as well as the socially constructed expectations about what is acceptable for males and females’) not particularly useful in ensuring students learn about the diversity of gender identities. There also do not appear to be any references to non-binary or gender diverse identities.

 

These definitions of sexuality and gender, and how they are employed throughout the syllabus, could be interpreted by some supportive schools and teachers to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender subject matter. But there is absolutely nothing that ensures schools and/or teachers must teach this content.

 

This erasure, or invisibilisation, of LGBTI people in the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is nothing short of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic.

 

Which makes it somewhat ironic then that there are more references to homophobia and transphobia in its content than there are to LGBTI people.

 

On page 77: ‘describe forms of bullying, harassment, abuse, neglect, discrimination and violence and the impact they have on health, safety and wellbeing, eg family and domestic violence, homophobic and transphobic bullying, racism, cyberbullying, discrimination against people with disability.’

 

And on page 88: ‘propose protective strategies for a range of neglect and abuse situations, eg family and domestic violence, bullying, harassment, homophobia, transphobia and vilification.’

 

Although note of course that both times homophobia and transphobia appear after an ‘eg’, meaning whether they are taught in these contexts remains optional (and obviously neither of these sections explicitly refers to biphobia or intersexphobia either).

 

Another major problem with the new NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is its approach to sexual health.

 

There are only two compulsory references to sexual health in the content of the syllabus, one of which we have already seen (on page 96: ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’).

 

The other reference, on page 95, describes ‘identify methods of contraception and evaluate the extent to which safe sexual health practices allow people to take responsibility for managing their own sexual health.’

 

There are two problems with this statement. First, it puts the emphasis on ‘contraception’ when sexual health, and LGBTI sexual health especially, is a much broader concept. Second, it does not specifically mandate that schools and teachers instruct students about sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

 

In fact, quite astoundingly, the only reference to STIs in the general syllabus, on page 84 (‘identify and plan preventive health practices and behaviours that assist in protection against disease, eg blood-borne viruses, sexually transmissible infections’) makes teaching about them optional. The only time the term HIV even appears in the entire document is in the glossary.

 

In terms of STI-prevention, it seems the NSW PDHPE syllabus has actually gone backwards from the previous 2003 document, which at least prescribed that students learn about:

 

‘sexual health

-acknowledging and understanding sexual feelings

-expectations of males and females

-rights and responsibilities in sexual relationships

-sexually transmitted infections, blood-borne viruses and HIV/AIDS’ as well as to

‘identify behaviours that assist in preventing STIs, BBVs and HIV/AIDS and explore the interrelationship with drug use.’

 

The aim of the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is explained on page 12 of the document:

 

‘The study of PDHPE in K-10 aims to enable students to develop the knowledge, understanding, skills, values and attitudes required to lead and promote healthy, safe and active lives.’

 

Unfortunately, the more than 100 pages of the new syllabus which follow that statement make clear that it does not, and cannot, promote healthy, safe and active lives for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. After all, it is impossible for students to learn everything they need to be safe when they cannot see themselves in the curriculum.

 

*****

 

Hopefully, this summary of the problems of the existing PDHPE syllabus explains why I am so reluctant to embrace any call for curriculum content to be reduced, given LGBTI content is invisible to begin with and instead should be increased.

 

The final issue I wish to address is ‘Reform Direction 13: Introducing a major project’, and in particular the proposal that this project – which would apparently contribute a significant proportion to a student’s final school results – be undertaken by working in teams.

 

I believe requiring students to work together in teams in this way is only possible where schools are safe learning environments for everyone – and that NSW schools, both government and non-government, currently are not safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

 

This is not just because of the exclusion of LGBTI issues from the PDHPE syllabus (although that is obviously a contributing factor), but also because of high rates of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying – which has been exacerbated by the Government’s decision to axe the Safe Schools program which was specifically designed to address these issues.

 

LGBTI students in non-government schools are especially vulnerable given the exceptions in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), allowing all private schools and colleges (whether they are religious or not), to discriminate against and expel LGBTI kids.

 

It is perhaps ironic that the Interim Report states on page 45 that:

 

studies have highlighted the importance of inclusive, supportive environments in which all learners’ backgrounds, strengths and starting points are recognised and welcomed, strong relationships are built, and collaborative learning (including project-based and problem-based learning) is encouraged.

 

The reality is that too many LGBTI students, in too many NSW schools, do not enjoy ‘inclusive, supportive environments’ in which they are ‘recognised and welcomed’. Unless and until this is fixed, then any proposal for a team-based major project in the final years of the NSW curriculum should be abandoned.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

There's no place for discrimination in the classroom-6

Every student has the right to be safe, and to learn about themselves, in every school. The NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report could take us further away from that goal than ever.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Invisibility in the Curriculum, 23 January 2019.

The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill

On Saturday 30 November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed that his Government would not meet its commitment to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill into Parliament before the end of the year.

 

Instead, he announced they would be releasing ‘a revised and further exposure draft of the RDA Bill to reflect the Government’s response to the consultation to date and provide further opportunity for engagement.’ [i]

 

On an optimistic reading, this means there is more opportunity for the Government to listen to all of the criticisms of this legislation, from women, LGBTI people, legal organisations and the Australian Human Rights Commission, that the Religious Discrimination Bill requires substantial amendment because it authorises discrimination against large sections of the Australian community.

 

Unfortunately, based on all evidence to date, we have more reason to be pessimistic, and instead fear that the Government will only listen to religious fundamentalists demanding even more special privileges to discriminate.

 

The only change to the Bill which Attorney-General Christian Porter highlighted at the National Press Club on 20 November[ii] was an amendment to ensure that ‘religious hospitals and aged-care providers will be given protections equivalent to those given to other religious bodies, in relation to employment of staff’ (in other words, allowing them to discriminate).

 

There have been no indications of positive changes to the Bill, to reduce its adverse impact on women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships, people with disability and others. Nor was there any reason to be hopeful in the Prime Minister’s media release confirming the delay.

 

However, what I really want to highlight here is the inconsistency of two of Morrison’s statements in that release.

 

Specifically, he criticises Labor for ‘a lack of genuine commitment … to the principle that Australians who hold sincere religious beliefs in this country deserve the same legal protections that are rightly provided in other areas such as gender and race.’

 

But then later the Prime Minister also says ‘Our Government will continue to proceed on the basis of good faith with a view to having a balanced and common sense Bill that protects the important religious freedoms that Australians can sadly no longer take for granted.’

 

Except these two concepts – a Religious Discrimination Bill, and religious freedom laws – are very, very different things.

 

Had Morrison actually delivered the former, legislation that simply protects people of faith, and no faith, against discrimination on the same basis as gender, race and other attributes, then not only would Labor have likely welcomed it, but so too would the majority of Australians, including LGBTI people. After all, we know what discrimination is like, and don’t want other people to experience it.

 

Instead, his Government has produced a ‘Religious Discrimination Bill’ in name, but a religious freedom law in substance. The most problematic elements of the Exposure Draft – re statements of belief, large employer codes of conduct, conscientious objections by health practitioners and the general ‘religious exception’ in clause 10[iii] – all purport to protect ‘religious freedom’ rather than the right to non-discrimination.

 

Obviously, a lot has been written about the serious flaws of these provisions (including by the author), and particularly about the discrimination they permit against other groups.

 

Perhaps one consequence that hasn’t received as much attention is that they actually make this legislation not just inconsistent in its objectives, but internally contradictory as well.

 

That’s because these same provisions also allow discrimination against people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or lack of belief – making it a Religious Discrimination Bill that perversely encourages religious discrimination.

 

For example, the protections for ‘statements of belief’ in clause 41 – which effectively render them exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory discrimination laws – don’t just apply to comments that discriminate against women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

Clause 41 also protects statements of belief that discriminate on the basis of religion. This includes, for example, saying the followers of other religions are ‘unclean heathens destined for eternal damnation’. Just like sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist statements, these derogatory comments will be protected irrespective of where they occur, including in the workplace, in education, in health, and in the provision of goods and services.

 

In the same way, clauses 8(3) and (4) won’t just protect a certain footballer telling gay and trans people they are going to hell – it will protect any religious employee who, outside ordinary work hours, tells people from other religions they’re going to hell, too.

 

The conscientious objection provisions, in clauses 8(5) and (6), are an even bigger threat. As well as allowing health practitioners, from GPs and pharmacists through to optometrists, physiotherapists and even podiatrists, to refuse to serve women, or LGBTI people, they could potentially be (ab)used by a health practitioner to refuse to serve Jewish people, or Muslims, or people from other minority faiths.

 

But the biggest threat of all – especially to minority religions – is found in clause 10. It allows religious schools and universities, charities and ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’,[iv] to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

 

This clause therefore permits discrimination against teachers and students, as well as the employees of – and even people accessing – charities and community services. And, as we have already seen, Attorney-General Porter plans to expand this clause even further to allow religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate in relation to employment (at the very least).

 

Technically, clause 10 protects all religious organisations equally – they will each be able to discriminate in terms of who they employ (or refuse to employ), and provide services to (and who they exclude).

 

Practically, this clause will primarily benefit the largest religious organisations – including the Catholic and Sydney Anglican[v] churches and related education, health and community services organisations – at the expense of everyone else.

 

With the massive outsourcing of public services to these bodies over the past two to three decades, they now receive billions and billions of dollars each and every year, and will be explicitly permitted to use that public funding to discriminate.

 

Not just in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (which is sadly already allowed under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), and which the Morrison Government steadfastly refuses to change), but also in relation to religious belief, or lack of belief.

 

That means a professor being denied a job because they are Jewish.

 

A doctor refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.

 

A school student expelled because they are atheist.

 

A homeless person missing out a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.

 

A charity worker rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.

 

An aged care employee losing shifts because they are agnostic.

 

All these scenarios could be legal under the Religious Discrimination Bill, as long as it was a religious organisation doing the discriminating. And they would be using taxpayers’ money – your money, my money, our money – to do so.

 

This outcome – entrenching the power and privilege of the major churches, namely the Catholics and Sydney Anglicans, over and above the rest of us – is the inevitable consequence of the internal contradiction of this legislation.

 

The Morrison Government has chosen to undermine what could and should have been a standard Religious Discrimination Bill – one that would have prohibited most, if not all, of the scenarios described above – with provisions that instead promote ‘religious freedom’.

 

With their decision to release a second Exposure Draft for public consultation, the Government now has the opportunity to make a better, and more informed, choice, and to prepare legislation that reduces religious discrimination rather than increasing it.

 

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to suspend my disbelief that they will choose the right option. Based on everything leading to this point, I have no faith the Government’s ‘revised and further exposure draft’ Bill will be any less of a threat to women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

But we must not forget it is also a threat to minority religions, to Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostic people alike. They too will be subjected to discriminatory statements of belief, and potentially denied access to health care, just because of who they are. And they will be refused employment, and discriminated against in education, health, aged care and community services, all by ‘mainstream’ religious organisations using public monies to do so.

 

Hopefully, they – as well as the many decent Catholic and Anglican people of good faith who oppose new special rights to discriminate – will join us in demanding genuine religious anti-discrimination laws, to replace Morrison’s badly botched Bill.

 

 

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By choosing to include expansive ‘religious freedom’ provisions, Scott Morrison has undermined the ability of the Religious Discrimination Bill to actually prohibit religious discrimination.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Media Release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Government will Protect Religious Freedoms by Getting Law Right, 30 November 2019.

[ii] Transcript, Attorney-General Christian Porter, Address to National Press Club, 20 November 2019.

[iii] The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[iv] Clause 10(2)(c).

[v] Noting Anglicare Victoria have joined other religious bodies, including Vincent Care Victoria and Uniting Vic.Tas, in criticising the special rights to discriminate contained in the Bill. ‘Religious discrimination bill: Faith-based groups and equality advocates welcome delay’, Guardian Australia, 1 December 2019.

Submission to Victorian Government Consultation on Banning Conversion Practices

The Victorian Government is currently consulting on legislative options to ban conversion practices, including ‘ex-gay therapy’ and ‘ex-trans therapy’. Submissions close 24 November 2019, with more details here. The following is my personal submission:

 

**********

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission in response to the Discussion Paper: ‘Legislative options to implement a ban of conversion practices.’

 

I write this as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, as someone who survived five years at an explicitly homophobic religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s,[i] and as someone who has written on this issue previously.[ii]

 

While I am not Victorian, given early-adopting jurisdictions will be effectively setting the standard for other states and territories to follow (including my current state of NSW), I am interested to ensure that the scheme introduced by the Victorian Government is as strong as possible.

 

On that basis, my answers to the consultation questions are as follows:

 

Do you agree with the HCC’s definition?

Would you suggest any changes?

Should the definition of conversion practices be broad enough to capture the practices that do not involve health services or counselling?

What treatments and practices should be expressly excluded from the definition?

 

The Health Complaints Commissioner’s definition appears reasonable. It is particularly important that the second part of the definition – ‘including efforts to eliminate sexual and/or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender, or efforts to change gender expressions’ – is retained.

 

This is because the harms caused by conversion practices arise exclusively in the context of activities trying to prevent people from identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

 

There is no evidence of harmful ‘conversion practices’ in the other direction (forcing people to be LGBT), and therefore care should be taken to ensure that support services for LGBT people, and especially LGBT children and young people, are not inadvertently captured in any definition of conversion practices.

 

The definition should, however, capture anti-LGBT conversion practices outside health services or counselling. Conversion practices are basically psychological torture and as such they should not be acceptable in any context.

 

There may nevertheless be scope for increased penalties, or additional regulatory responses, where these practices occur in health services or counselling given the duty of care involved in these settings.

 

Who do you think should be protected?

Should protection be limited to children and people experiencing vulnerability? If so, what vulnerable groups should be included?

Should protection be available to all members of the community?

In what ways do you think the issue of consent is relevant to determining who should be protected?

 

I think all people should be protected, including adults. Again, my starting position is that conversion practices are psychological torture. And torture is not acceptable in any context, or with respect to any victim.

 

We should also remember that an adult who seeks out conversion practices has likely grown up in a homophobic, biphobic or transphobic environment, and that the cumulative effect of years or even decades of this bigotry and intolerance is probably the primary causative factor in them agreeing to participate in such harmful activities. It is therefore not truly free and informed consent.

 

Of course, there are some groups who are particularly vulnerable, including children as well as people with mental ill-health or other reasons for diminished legal capacity. The penalties for engaging in conversion practices aimed at these vulnerable groups could be made higher than for other adults (for example, by making the vulnerability of the victim an aggravating factor in sentencing).

 

Who do you think should be banned from providing conversion practices?

Specific professionals or persons? Or everyone who offers conversion practices?

 

These practices should be banned by anyone. There is no justification to allow psychological torture in any context.

 

There may however be reasons to provide additional regulatory responses for health practitioners, including counsellors, who engage in these practices (including referring people to these practices). This could include being suspended, or deregistered from providing any health services in the future, in addition to criminal or other penalties which apply to everyone.

 

Do you think conversion practices should be regulated wherever they occur or only in certain contexts or places?

 

If only health professionals are regulated, then again it should not matter where the conversion practices take place, because psychological torture should be prohibited wherever it occurs. It is a breach of the duty to care for patients for health practitioners to engage in these practices, or to refer others to them, in any context or place.

 

Do you think conversion practices should be regulated through criminal law, civil regulatory schemes or civil laws, or a combination of these?

What aspects of each approach would be effective in regulating conversion practices?

What aspects of each approach would be less effective in regulating conversion practices?

 

Given the abhorrent practices involved, and their harmful consequences on the lives of victims, I believe there should be criminal penalties for providing conversion practices, and for referring people to conversion practices.

 

This is a proportionate response to the seriousness of the underlying offence, and necessary to send a signal to the community that such practices will not be tolerated, any time, any where.

 

However, acknowledging the potential difficulty in criminal prosecution in these areas, these laws should be supplemented by civil regulatory sanctions, enforced by the Health Complaints Commissioner, Commissioner for Children and Young People or another similar body.

 

Finally, victims of such practices should be able to make claims of negligence against the people providing them, especially where it involves health practitioners and/or counsellors. Again, this is in recognition of the damage caused to their lives. Any laws necessary should be changed to allow this outcome, and provide financial redress for the victims.

 

What rights do you think are relevant to consider when determining how best to implement a ban of conversion practices?

Can the impact on these rights be justified in light of the harm conversion practices cause?

 

The most important rights in terms of this debate are the right to health, and the right to non-discrimination (given conversion practices are an attack on people with diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities).

 

I acknowledge that there may be an adverse impact on freedom of religion, in that some individuals and organisations may assert that these practices are in line with their religious beliefs against LGBT identities.

 

However, their religious beliefs do not justify the imposition of psychological torture on others, including children and vulnerable people. In the same way that religious beliefs do not justify physical torture, including female genital mutilation, a position already reflected in Australian law.[iii]

 

Are there other matters that you consider critical for the design of legislation or effective implementation?

 

I reiterate my view that the approach adopted in states like Victoria will exert considerable influence on the position that will ultimately be embraced in others states and territories. As such, I strongly encourage the Victorian Government to introduce the strongest possible ban on these abhorrent practices, for the benefit of LGBT people nation-wide.

 

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details supplied should you require clarification or additional information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

Footnotes:

[i] See The Longest Five Years.

[ii] See Criminalising Ex-Gay Therapy August 6, 2018; Submission to NSW Parliament Inquiry into False or Misleading Health Practices re Ex-Gay Therapy and Intersex Sterilisation 16 June, 2014.

[iii] And, hopefully, one day religious beliefs will not be used to justify male genital mutilation/circumcision either.

What Gender Reveal Parties Actually Reveal

If the Germans hadn’t invented the term schadenfreude several centuries ago, we would have needed to create it to describe the most 21st century of phenomena: laughing at gender reveal fail videos.

 

These videos are (unintentionally) hilarious not just because when they go wrong, they go very wrong. With people coming up with increasingly intricate and in many cases bizarre scenarios to ‘stand out’, the potential for things to go awry has grown exponentially.

 

They are also deeply funny because the concept of a gender reveal party itself is inherently problematic, which means that laughing at the misfortunate of those involved is usually a guilt-free pleasure.

 

If you’re reading this and still think gender reveal parties are just a bit of harmless fun, perhaps it is useful to consider what exactly it is these parties are revealing – which is far more about the parent(s) than about their child(ren).

 

First, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand the difference between sex and gender.

 

Sex is biological (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions’).

 

On the other hand, gender is identity-based (with the Yogyakarta Principles defining gender identity as ‘each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms’).[i]

 

Given it is impossible to know a child’s gender identity before or at birth (and usually for years after that), this means these celebrations should at the very least be renamed ‘sex reveal parties’.

 

Second, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand that both sex and gender are much more complicated than just male and female.

 

At its very core, a gender reveal party is an attempt to place an unborn child (or children) into one of two boxes: boy or girl.

 

And yet, in 2019, we know that gender identity is a spectrum, and there is a wide range of other options, including non-binary.

 

We also know that some children will be ‘born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies’ (the definition of intersex from Intersex Human Rights Australia).[ii]

 

Gender reveal parties therefore deliberately exclude some of the beautiful diversity of the human experience.[iii]

 

Third, they reveal that some parents are willing participants in a reductivist view of gender.

 

Gender reveal parties simplify the concepts of male and female into blue and pink respectively, as though entire genders can be signified by, even summed up by, a colour. When there is obviously more diversity within genders, and more similarities across people of different genders, than such a basic dichotomy can hope to represent.

 

Somewhat amusingly, these colours are also the exact opposite of those from just a century ago. From US Ladies Home Journal in June 1918:

 

‘The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’

 

Mush less amusingly, while the colours have changed, some of those gender stereotypes remain and gender reveal parties tend to entrench, rather than question, them.

 

Based on these three factors, gender reveal parties can actually be harmful. By supporting a view that gender will match sex assigned at birth, they can make life much more difficult for trans and gender diverse children.

 

By raising expectations that babies will be born with sex characteristics that are exclusively male or female, they can erase intersex children (and even potentially increase pressure for unnecessary surgeries post-birth to ensure their bodies match these societal ‘norms’).

 

And by entrenching the notion that boys and girls are inherently different, and reinforcing stereotypes about how they will (or should) behave, gender reveal parties place artificial restrictions on all of us, and our behaviours.

 

It may sound like I am unsympathetic to the parents who hold gender reveal parties. I’m not, at least in part because most are simply replicating the actions of those around them (and those they follow on social media), and probably haven’t considered any of the issues described above. They are acting out of ignorance rather than malice.[iv]

 

I’m also sympathetic because, as a society, we seem to be placing an ever-greater emphasis on gender, certainly much more than I can remember as a child growing up in the 1980s. From unnecessarily gendered toys, to unnecessarily gendered toiletries, and even unnecessarily gendered grocery items, heightened expectations of ‘gender conformity’ are all around us – so it is perhaps only natural they will be felt most keenly by expecting parents.

 

The challenge then is what we can do to overcome these norms, especially the emerging norm that parents will hold gender reveal parties in the first place.

 

I have four suggestions to start, from the easiest to the most difficult:

 

  1. Don’t hold a gender reveal party

 

If you are having a child, simply refuse to have one of these ‘celebrations’. Which is easy for someone like me to say (a cis gay man who has decided, with his partner, not to have children, at least in part because of the climate emergency), so let’s move on…

 

  1. Don’t attend gender reveal parties

 

If you are invited to one of these ‘celebrations’, don’t attend. If people all stopped going, parents would stop holding them.

 

  1. Let the person know why you’re not attending

 

This is clearly more difficult than simply not turning up, especially because many of us prefer to avoid confrontation. But if we are to do the hard yards of ending this social norm, then we should take the time to explain to the person who has sent the invitation why you won’t be there.

 

  1. Stop asking ‘What are you having?’

 

Obviously, this is another degree of difficulty again, especially because this is something we’ve been conditioned to ask, usually first, when someone says they are pregnant (and something I have been guilty of, on more than one occasion).

 

But what does it actually matter? And aren’t there more interesting and/or important questions to ask, like ‘What are you looking forward to?’ ‘What are you nervous about?’ ‘Are you prepared?’ and ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

 

For those having difficulty making this mental adjustment, consider thinking of it this way. When you are asking ‘What are you having?’ what you’re really asking is ‘What are your child’s sex chromosomes and/or genitalia?’ and ‘What gender do you currently intend to raise your child even though you cannot know now their eventual gender identity?’

 

Rationally, an expecting parent who knows the difference between sex and gender could also respond to the ‘What are you having?’ inquiry by saying that they’ll get back to the questioner in five, ten, 15 or even 20 years, when the child decides for themself.

 

Which brings me to the primary exception to my ‘no gender reveal parties’ stance: where trans and gender diverse people announce their own gender identity. This is truly something to celebrate, especially for those who’ve overcome years or even decades of transphobia from families, schools, and society in general.

 

[I suppose I would also make an exception for parents who hold a gender reveal party and then release a colour like green or brown and tell attendees that they’ll let their child determine their identity for themselves.]

 

Other than that, gender reveal parties are a social phenomenon that has risen to prominence incredibly quickly over the past decade – and hopefully will recede just as quickly in the early 2020s.

 

Indeed, that’s the view of the woman whose 2008 post is widely-credited as popularising ‘gender reveal parties’, Jenna Karvunidis. From NPR in July 2019:[v]

 

‘Plot twist! The baby from the original gender reveal party is a girl who wears suits,’ Karvunidis says. ‘She says ‘she’ and ‘her’ and all that, but you know she really goes outside gender norms’.

 

… Karvunidis says her views on sex and gender have changed, especially when she’s talking to her daughter.

 

‘She’s telling me ‘Mom, there are many genders. Mom, there’s many different sexualities and all different types,’ and I take her lead on that,’ Karvunidis says.

 

She says she does have some regrets and understands these parties aren’t beneficial to everyone.

 

‘I know it’s been harmful to some individuals. It’s 2019, we don’t need to get our joy by giving others pain,’ she says. ‘I think there’s a new way to have these parties.’

 

And that idea is as simple as just eating cake.

 

‘Celebrate the baby,’ she says. ‘There’s no way to have a cake cut into it, to see if they’re going to like chess. Let’s just have a cake.’

 

Which is a great idea. And then to eat any leftovers while watching videos of gender reveal party fails because, let’s face it, some of them are funny as hell.

 

Untitled design (5)

An infamous 2017 gender reveal party fail, which caused a 47,000 acre fire in Arizona.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Yes, I’m aware that both the concepts of sex and gender, and the relationship between them, are far more complex. However, in the context of ‘gender reveal parties’ it’s clear these celebrations are based on biological sex (chromosomes and/or genitalia) rather than identity-based ideas of gender.

[ii] IHRA website, here.

[iii] We should note here that variations in sex characteristics is separate to non-binary gender identities, with many intersex people identifying with the ‘sex’ they were assigned at birth. Again for the Intersex Human Rights Australia website:

‘Some intersex people and some non-intersex (‘endosex’) people use nonbinary terms to describe their identities and sex classifications. Often, however, we encounter assumptions that to be intersex is to be nonbinary, or to be nonbinary is to be intersex. These assumptions are harmful. They fail to recognize the diversity of the intersex population, and in this case even the existence of intersex boys and girls, and intersex women and men.’

[iv] Of course, some parents possibly are deliberately setting expectations that their children will be either male or female, and that they will ‘act accordingly’ (including not identifying as trans or gender diverse), to which I say ‘fuck you’.

[v] Woman who popularized gender reveal parties says her views on gender have changed.

The Religious Discrimination Debate is a Test for the States and Territories

The Religious Discrimination Bill, released in late August by Attorney-General Christian Porter, would be the biggest reform to anti-discrimination law in Australia in at least 15 years, since the passage of the Age Discrimination Act 2004.

 

In fact, it is potentially the most radical change to our federal anti-discrimination system since, well, the beginnings of anti-discrimination law in this country.

 

That’s because it fundamentally undermines one of the key concepts of this framework: concurrent Commonwealth, and State/Territory, jurisdictions.

 

Since the passage of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975, NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and similar laws elsewhere, these laws have operated effectively alongside each other, without directly interfering with each other.

 

Where conduct was prohibited under laws at both levels, the victims of such discrimination were able to choose where to lodge their complaint. Successive Commonwealth Governments haven’t sought to cover the field, or explicitly override the provisions of State and Territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

But this is no longer the case. The Religious Discrimination Bill dramatically, and unprecedentedly, upsets Australia’s anti-discrimination applecart.

 

Section 41 provides that ‘statements of belief’ do not constitute discrimination for the purposes of any anti-discrimination law – including each of the Racial, Sex, Disability and Age Discrimination Acts at Commonwealth level, and all equivalent state and territory laws.

 

The Apple Isle has even more to lose than the others – with section 17(1) of their Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 singled out by name as being specifically overruled.

 

This is undoubtedly because it offers the most effective form of protection against conduct that ‘offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules’ a wide range of groups, including LGBTI people, women, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disability, among others.

 

But all State and Territory Governments should be alert and alarmed at this unwanted and unwarranted intrusion, not least because of the proposal that the Commonwealth Attorney-General be allowed to override even more laws by future regulation, without needing the approval of federal Parliament (and with Senate numbers making it extremely difficult for these regulations to be disallowed).

 

It is not just the principle of federalism that is offended by this hostile takeover. It is the fact the Religious Discrimination Bill makes it easier to offend the rights of vulnerable groups in each and every Australian jurisdiction that makes its contents so disturbing.

 

This makes the current religious discrimination debate a major test for State and Territory Governments around the country. Will they stand up to the Commonwealth Government’s decision to undermine their anti-discrimination laws?

 

More importantly, will they stand up for the communities in their respective states and territories – LGBTI people, women, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disability – who stand to lose the most as a consequence of the Religious Discrimination Bill?

 

There is another, related challenge for State and Territory Governments from these developments. At the same time as the Attorney-General was releasing his exposure draft Bill, the reporting date for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of ‘religious exceptions’ was pushed back to December 2020.

 

This is the inquiry that was established earlier this year to examine whether provisions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, and teachers, should be amended, or repealed entirely.

 

The delay means any legislation arising from this inquiry will likely not be passed until the second half of 2021 – and therefore won’t be in place until the 2022 school year at the earliest.

 

This is incredibly disappointing given Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s broken promise, in October 2018, that he would ensure LGBT students were protected before the end of last year. Effectively, this will now be delayed by more than three years.

 

The contrast with the Religious Discrimination Bill is also revealing. On one hand, the Morrison Government wants to pass a stand-alone Religious Discrimination Bill before the end of this year – a substantial, and radical, change to our federal anti-discrimination regime, with just one month of public consultation.

 

On the other, it refuses to make what are modest, straight-forward changes to protect LGBT students and teachers in religious schools for several years. It has decided to vacate that field, and consequently to vacate their responsibilities to vulnerable kids.

 

In the meantime, LGBT students and teachers will continue to be subject to abuse and mistreatment, simply on the basis of who they are, in schoolyards, classrooms and staff-rooms around the country.

 

And so it is now up to State and Territory Governments to show the leadership that the Commonwealth Government won’t. For NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia to pass urgent changes to protect LGBT students. And for all jurisdictions other than Tasmania and the ACT to cover LGBT teachers.

 

Because all kids deserve to grow and learn in a safe environment. And they don’t deserve to wait until 2022 to know what that feels like.

 

Berejiklian Andrews RD Bill

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at Midsumma. Will they stand up against the Religious Discrimination Bill which will make it easier to discriminate against LGBTI people in their respective states?

 

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The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill(s)

The Religious Discrimination Bill(s), released by Attorney-General Christian Porter in late August, remind me a lot of the ongoing Sydney apartment crisis.

 

They are the inevitable consequence of a system that has been designed to serve the interests of one group over and above everyone else. Except instead of property developers, these new laws would benefit religious fundamentalists. While those left picking up the tab are women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disabilities, and plenty of others.

 

And, just like a recently-built Sydney apartment, what might seem shiny and new on first inspection reveals a growing list of defects the closer one looks.

 

Here then is a look at the serious problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill(s) that we are already aware of (a list I’m sure will grow if we ever have the misfortune of ‘living’ under these shoddily-constructed laws):

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ minorities

 

The worst provision of the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill is proposed section 41. This provides that ‘statements of belief’ are basically exempt from discrimination complaints under all Commonwealth, State and Territory anti-discrimination laws (including the Fair Work Act 2009).

 

As long as the person making such comments does so on the basis of their religion and they are made ‘in good faith’, they will be lawful unless the person on the receiving end can show they are malicious, or likely to harass, vilify, incite hatred or violence. In practice, that would be extremely difficult to prove.

 

This section is a radical departure from our current anti-discrimination framework, under which Commonwealth laws like the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and State and Territory laws like the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, operate alongside each other, allowing victims to decide where to complain.

 

The provision also specifically overrides section 17(1) of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, which prohibits conduct that ‘offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules’ people on the basis of a wide range of protected attributes, including:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Lawful sexual activity
  • Gender identity
  • Intersex variations of sex characteristics
  • Disability
  • Marital status
  • Relationship status
  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Parental status, [and]
  • Family responsibilities.

 

That’s a long list of groups who will find themselves the targets of derogatory comments having lost one of the few effective shields against them.

 

But that’s exactly what section 41 seems intended to achieve: to make it easier for religious fundamentalists to speak evil, and write evil, comments about different groups. With the obvious consequence that women, LGBTI people and others will be forced to see evil and hear evil comments about themselves.

 

This provision would build a fundamental imbalance into our existing anti-discrimination system, privileging the rights of one group within society at the expense of everyone else. It must not be allowed to pass.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion

 

Another serious problem of the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill are provisions which are based on the circumstances of a certain (ex-)footballer.

 

Proposed sub-sections 8(3) and 8(4) would make it much more difficult for major employers (organisations with revenue of at least $50 million per year) to introduce codes of conduct that prevent employees from making derogatory comments about minorities outside ordinary working hours where those comments are ‘statements of belief’.

 

The only way an employer will be able to enforce such restrictions is if they are able to demonstrate failure to do so would inflict ‘unjustifiable financial hardship’ on them. On a practical level, it will be extremely difficult to prove hypothetical yet significant future harm in order to justify imposing these rules in the here and now. Many big businesses will (quite understandably) simply avoid doing so.

 

It should also be noted that ‘unjustifiable financial hardship’ is the only criteria to permit these codes of conduct. They cannot be implemented on the basis of wanting to promote diversity and inclusion within the workplace (including to make other employees feel welcome), or to associate their ‘brand’ with values of diversity and inclusion more broadly – unless they can attach a sufficiently-large dollar value to it.

 

Once again the likely consequence of these provisions is to make it easier for religious fundamentalists to make offensive comments about women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disabilities, among others. That seems to be the opposite outcome to what a well-constructed anti-discrimination law should achieve.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to serve minorities

 

The next major defect of the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill is also found in proposed section 8 – this time sub-sections 8(5) and 8(6). These provisions make it easier for health practitioners to conscientiously object to providing health services.

 

If, upon reading this, you think these provisions must be referring to ‘controversial’ medical procedures such as abortion and euthanasia, you should be aware they actually cover a much, much wider range of health services.

 

This includes assisted reproductive technology, where health practitioners would presumably be empowered to ‘conscientiously object’ to providing access to single women, unmarried couples and LGBTI people.

 

But even that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of services where it will be more difficult to impose ‘health practitioner conduct rules’ to treat all patients with dignity and respect. Indeed, the definition of ‘health service’ in section 5 ‘means a service provided in the practice of any of the following health professions:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practice
  • Dental …
  • Medical
  • Medical radiation practice
  • Midwifery
  • Nursing
  • Occupational therapy
  • Optometry
  • Pharmacy
  • Physiotherapy
  • Podiatry, [and]
  • Psychology.’

 

This full list makes it abundantly clear these provisions are not restricted to permitting health practitioners to refuse to perform certain acts, but instead will encourage them to refuse to serve certain classes of people (unless someone can explain what ‘controversial’ procedures are involved in dentistry, medical radiation practice, or optometry).

 

For example, it could allow a pharmacist to refuse to dispense hormone treatments to trans customers, while providing them to cisgender women. Indeed, this is something that the Human Rights Law Alliance (which is aligned to the Australian Christian Lobby) has been publicly advocating.

 

If you are now thinking that these provisions have the potential to substantively undermine Australia’s health care system, and in particular the right of all people to access essential health services without fear of discrimination on the basis of who they are, you would be right.

 

Both of these sets of unusual amendments to the ordinary ‘reasonableness’ test for indirect discrimination (sub-sections 8(3) and (4) re big business, and sub-sections 8(5) and (6) re health practitioners) must be rejected.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will make it easier for religious bodies to discriminate against others

 

The fourth and final serious problem in the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill is the broad ‘exception’ in proposed section 10 that would allow religious bodies, including religious schools and registered charities, to discriminate against others on the basis of religious belief, or lack of belief.

 

Given this provision effectively allows discrimination between religions, it would be tempting for women’s organisations, and groups representing LGBTI Australians, to give it less attention than those outlined above. But it would be ill-advised to ignore its potentially far-reaching consequences.

 

For example, the test to allow discrimination: ‘conduct that may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion’, will be much easier to satisfy than the existing criteria in section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984: ‘an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion’ [emphasis added].

 

If the test in section 10 of the Religious Discrimination Bill becomes law, it would set a negative precedent, with some in the Government then pushing for the same, lower standard to be included in the Sex Discrimination Act (potentially through the current Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into religious exceptions).

 

The exception in section 10 also applies to an incredibly wide range of circumstances. For example, it would allow a religious school to expel a student in year 12 for expressing doubts about the school’s religion (something that is specifically excluded under equivalent laws in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory, which allow discrimination on the basis of religious belief at admission, but not once enrolled).

 

Finally, if section 10 becomes law it could set up a potential ‘time-bomb’ for future anti-discrimination reform. If and when we finally achieve repeal of the religious exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, this provision could allow religious schools to expel LGBT students who refuse to repent for their sexual orientation or gender identity (where the school attempts to claim they are not discriminating because they are LGBT, but instead on the basis of their religious beliefs about being LGBT).

 

For all of these reasons, proposed section 10 must be substantially narrowed in order to avoid creating a structural flaw not just in the Religious Discrimination Bill itself, but across anti-discrimination legislation more generally.

 

**********

 

These four sets of provisions are dangerous, unprecedented, unwanted and unwarranted additions to Australia’s anti-discrimination regime (so much so they might be described as the four horsemen of our ‘religious freedom’ apocalypse).

 

They will disturb any sense of balance or proportion in our laws, by making it clear the right of religious fundamentalists to discriminate against others is more important than the rights of women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disabilities and others to live their lives free from discrimination.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will ensure that religious belief is privileged in several key ways, in an almost unlimited range of everyday situations.

 

But they are not the only threats in the draft laws released by the Attorney-General a fortnight ago.

 

You may have noticed in this article’s title, and introduction, references to Religious Discrimination Bill(s). That’s because, along with the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill itself, Mr Porter also released the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill 2019.

 

While these two Bills have received far less attention than the Religious Discrimination Bill, they too contain provisions that could undermine the human rights of other Australians, including:

 

The Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill creates the unnecessary position of Religious Freedom Commissioner

 

The Government’s own Religious Freedom Review (aka the ‘Ruddock Review’) found it was not necessary to create the position of Religious Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

Despite this, the Consequential Amendments Bill would do exactly that. Further, it frames this position as a Religious Freedom Commissioner, in contrast to the Age, Disability, Race and Sex Commissioners who are all explicitly appointed as ‘Discrimination’ Commissioners.

 

Finally, adding insult to injury, the Government would be appointing a Religious Freedom Commissioner when LGBTI Australians still do not have our own Commissioner, more than six years since the introduction of protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

 

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill unnecessarily amends the objects clauses of anti-discrimination laws

 

This Bill would introduce the following words into the objects clauses of all other Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws:

 

‘In giving effect to the objects of this Act, regard is to be had to the indivisibility and universality of human rights, and the principle that every person is free and equal in dignity and rights.’

 

Which sounds innocuous enough, except that in the explanatory notes for the Bill the only other human right that is specifically mentioned by name is ‘the right to freedom of religion.’

 

These explanatory notes can and will be used by the judiciary in determining how these amended objects clauses affect the interpretation of the Racial, Sex, Disability and Age Discrimination Acts, potentially giving more weight to so-called religious freedom (at a time when we need to be reducing religious exceptionalism, not exacerbating it).

 

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill unnecessarily ‘protects’ charities advocating discriminatory marriage

 

This Bill would also amend the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) to ensure that charities that advocate for only cisgender heterosexual marriage are not de-registered. Specifically, it would include the following in section 11:

 

‘To avoid doubt, the purpose of engaging in, or promoting, activities that support a view of marriage as a union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life, is not, of itself, a disqualifying purpose.’

 

Except, when the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) was amended in 2017, the Charities and Not-for-profits Commission advised Parliament such an amendment was not needed. And, in the two years since then, there is exactly zero evidence of any charity being adversely affected.

 

Nor is there any justification for singling out this one discriminatory and exclusionary belief for special protection in our charities regulation.

 

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill inserts more discriminatory religious exceptions into the Marriage Act

 

Speaking of the Marriage Act, this Bill would also insert even more religious exceptions into that law. Specifically, new section 47C would explicitly allow religious educational institutions to discriminate in the provision of facilities, goods and services for the purposes of the solemnisation of marriage.

 

This would permit schools to discriminate against LGBTI couples, divorced people re-marrying and people who had previously cohabitated – even where these facilities, goods and services are provided publicly on a commercial or for-profit basis.

 

As I have written previously, the amendments that were included in the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 already mean we do not currently enjoy genuine marriage equality in this country. We should be aiming to remove those religious exceptions, not entrench them.

 

**********

 

I wrote at the beginning of this post that the Religious Discrimination Bill(s) share several similarities with the ongoing Sydney apartment crisis.

 

But there is also one key difference – while these plans have been drafted, they have not yet been ‘built’. Which means there is still time to avert this new crisis, for the Morrison Government, and Parliament more generally, to amend the Religious Discrimination Bill and its two accompanying laws, and thereby avoid their adverse impact on large numbers of everyday Australians.

 

However, if the Government and Parliament fail to listen and take action, and instead pass these Bills unamended, they will be condemning women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disabilities and others to live under the legislative equivalent of Opal Tower, or Mascot Towers.

 

We will always be fearful of the next crack to emerge: of the next time we are discriminated against simply because of who we are, entirely lawfully, because of somebody else’s religious beliefs. We will never get to feel at home.

 

Opal Tower

The Religious Discrimination Bill(s) are the legislative equivalent of Opal Tower – but there’s still time to avert a new crisis, if the Government and Parliament are willing to listen.

 

To find out more about everyday situations in which religious beliefs will be privileged, check out this twitter thread. And if you’ve enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile.

 

What to Expect, and What to Fear, from the Religious Discrimination Bill

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is overdue.

 

Conceived eight months ago, when the Bill was announced as part of the Government’s response to the Religious Freedom Review in December 2018 Attorney-General Christian Porter stated that “we are well-advanced on the drafting and… we would have [it] out early [this] year, so that people can see it”.[i]

 

Yet in late August 2019 this legislation remains nowhere to be seen – at least not in public, and definitely not by the LGBTI community (although given Morrison’s consultation with 21 religious leaders,[ii] of various faiths, in early August it is a safe bet they have been advised of its key features).

 

The longer the gestational period for the Religious Discrimination Bill is, and the more details that are kept hidden from the people who it could adversely affect – LGBTI Australians, women, single parents, de factos and divorced people – the greater the levels of collective anxiety about what it may contain.

 

So, what can we expect when Morrison and Porter are ‘expecting’?

 

**********

 

If we are to take the Attorney-General at his word, we have nothing to fear from this reform. From the time it was first announced, Porter has consistently stated that it would be relatively straight-forward:

 

The architecture for discrimination legislation in Australia is well-known, it’s not overly complicated. An attribute is defined – such as age or race or sex or disability or, in this case, the adherence to a religion or the right to not adhere to a religion – and then certain prohibitions are placed on people in terms of their treatment of other Australians based on that attribute. So you are protected from discrimination because of that attribute and then there are certain exemptions drafted as is appropriate. I don’t think that that would be a very contentious bill, necessarily, it follows a very standard architecture.[iii]

 

He has made similarly reassuring comments since the 18 May election:

 

“Porter said the government was doing ‘precisely what we said we would do’ at the election. He believed a ‘classical formulation of rights’ that protected people from the behaviour of other people through the architecture of anti-discrimination bills was superior to a religious freedom bill.”[iv]

 

And just today: “Mr Porter told The Australian that the final bill would deliver a religious discrimination act that ‘mirrors other anti-discrimination acts such as those already covering race, sex and aged discrimination’”.[v]

 

Based on these comments, the Morrison Government should shortly give birth[vi] to a Religious Discrimination Bill that, similar to something like the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth), protects people against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, and nothing else.

 

Such a narrow law would in fact be a welcome development, especially because it would protect religious minorities against discrimination – something that is long overdue in multicultural Australia.

 

But it would not be welcomed by everyone, especially not religious fundamentalists like the Australian Christian Lobby, and parts of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, who have been relentlessly campaigning for a more expansive Religious Freedom Bill, one that would provide people of faith with the ability to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex and relationship status (among other attributes).

 

And that’s why the delay in releasing the Bill is so concerning. Because preparing a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill is a relatively straight-forward task, and one that should have been completed months ago.

 

Whereas cooking up a Religious Freedom Bill is a much more complicated process, as more and more potential ‘nasties’ are added into the mix. Which is one possible reading of media reports from early July suggesting the legislation has ‘already had more than 50 drafts.’[vii]

 

So, if the Morrison Government is indeed preparing to introduce a Religious Freedom Bill, what exactly should LGBTI Australians be afraid of?

 

**********

 

My number one worry is that the legislation will undermine our existing framework of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections.

 

Now, I am the first to admit that these laws are deeply flawed[viii] (in most jurisdictions other than Tasmania anyway) and in need of significant reform, including to remove the overly-generous religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people.

 

The problem is that the Religious Discrimination Bill could make things much, much worse.

 

For example, the Government could create a positive right for religious individuals and organisations to ‘manifest’ their religious belief, even where it has a negative impact on the rights of others, such as the right to be protected against discrimination.

 

They could explicitly provide that the Religious Discrimination Bill overrides the laws of state and territories that establish better protections for LGBTI people. Even if they don’t include a ‘cover the field’ type provision, depending on how they legislate any inconsistency between Commonwealth and State and Territory laws could invalidate the latter.

 

To take a specific example, the Religious Discrimination Bill could override the anti-discrimination laws in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory which currently protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. And it could preclude other jurisdictions, like NSW and Victoria, from adopting the same approaches in the future.

 

Another way in which the Religious Discrimination Bill could undermine anti-discrimination protections for other groups, is through the inclusion of new ‘objectives clauses’ in all Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, as recommended by the Religious Freedom Review.[ix]

 

Recommendation 3: Commonwealth, State and Territory governments should consider the use of objects, purposes or other interpretive clauses in anti-discrimination legislation to reflect the equal status in international law of all human rights, including freedom of religion.

 

The risk lies in how this recommendation is implemented. It is possible that the Government does what then-Attorney-General George Brandis tried to do during the marriage legislation debate in November 2017, and only incorporate Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

 

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

 

Significantly, Brandis did so while excluding the equally-important Article 18(3):

 

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.[x]

 

If the Government adopts this approach, prioritising the objective of religious freedom over other human rights, we can be in no doubt the (misnamed) Human Rights Law Alliance will file as many legal ccomplaints at it takes to have courts reinterpret LGBTI anti-discrimination laws as narrowly as possible.

 

Just this week we also discovered that the Religious Discrimination Bill could provide anti-discrimination ‘protection’ not just to individuals, but also to religious organisations[xi] – something that is unprecedented in Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.

 

As Anna Brown from Equality Australia stated:

 

It would be extremely unorthodox for the religious discrimination bill to include provisions to protect organisations or religious institutions given the historical focus of discrimination law in protecting the rights and dignity of individuals.

 

Another risk from the Commonwealth creating positive rights for people to ‘manifest’ their religious belief is that it could undermine LGBTI anti-vilification laws in Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT.[xii]

 

Currently, none of those jurisdictions include ‘religious discussion’ as a defence to their vilification provisions (although the Hodgman Liberal Government in Tasmania tried to introduce this defence in the last term of parliament, but was defeated in their upper house).

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill could instead make it easier for people in those jurisdictions to vilify LGBTI people as long as they could say this vilification was motivated by their religious beliefs.

 

**********

 

The second major fear is that we could end up with a system where religious belief attracts more rights than other protected attributes, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status/sex characteristics.

 

For example, there is a possibility (albeit small) that the Religious Discrimination Bill will create anti-vilification protections for religious belief.

 

Which, in principle, is perfectly reasonable – because nobody deserves to be vilified on the basis of who they are (although religious vilification laws would need to be carefully crafted so as not to create de facto blasphemy laws).

 

The problem arises because it would be only the second attribute to attract protection against vilification under Commonwealth law – the other being racial vilification prohibited under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

 

None of sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status attract equivalent protections. No matter how plaintively religious fundamentalists are performing their persecution at the moment (especially regarding the Folau case), it is impossible to argue that vilification against people because of their religious belief is any more common, or harmful, than homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic vilification.

 

There is another situation, however, where it is already certain that religious Australians will end up with greater human rights representation than LGBTI people – because the Morrison Government has committed to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

In principle, a Religious Discrimination Commissioner (along the lines of the existing Race, Sex, Age and Disability Commissioners) makes sense – although its focus should be on removing discrimination against people on the basis of religion, not prosecuting the case for ever-greater ‘religious freedoms’.

 

In practice, though, even the Government’s own Religious Freedom Review, chaired by the hand-picked former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, found that a stand-alone Religious Discrimination Commissioner was unnecessary:

 

Recommendation 19: The Australian Human Rights Commission should take a leading role in the protection of freedom of religion, including through enhancing engagement, understanding and dialogue. This should occur within the existing commissioner model and not necessarily through the creation of a new position [emphasis added].

 

Appointing a Religious Freedom Commissioner would also create a stark contrast with LGBTI Australians, who, despite being protected against discrimination following the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, still do not have a human rights commissioner of our own.[xiii]

 

Therefore, if either or both religious anti-vilification laws and a Religious Freedom Commissioner are introduced, LGBTI Australians will quite rightly be left wondering why some Australians are more equal than others.

 

**********

 

My third major worry concerns a litany of other new special rights that could be created for religious individuals and organisations, across a range of other laws.

 

We have already seen a preview of this, with the Government’s legislative agenda, published on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,[xiv] suggesting they will introduce not just a Religious Discrimination Bill, but also a Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill and a Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill.

 

The latter two bills in particular will ‘amend existing Commonwealth legislation relating to freedom of religion, including amendments to marriage law, [and] charities law.’

 

The reference to marriage law may be linked to Recommendation 12 of the Religious Freedom Review, which stated:

 

The Commonwealth should progress legislative amendments to make it clear that religious schools are not required to make available their facilities, or to provide goods or services, for any marriage, provided that the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

 

This is wrong in practice – if a religious school is offering its facilities, goods or services to the public (usually to make a profit), there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why it should be able to reject couples simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.

 

But it is even worse in principle. As a result of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, Australia already has one of the worst same-sex marriage laws in the world.[xv] That legislation allowed existing civil celebrants to register in order to be able to refuse to officiate at ceremonies for LGBTI couples based on nothing more than their personal prejudice.

 

The 2017 marriage amendments also explicitly incorporated religious exceptions into the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) for the first time, granting religious organisations the ability to refuse to provide wedding-related services (even where those services were offered to the public on a commercial basis).

 

We should be aiming to purge these discriminatory provisions from the Marriage Act, not add to them with even more religious exceptions, this time to further entrench the legal privileges enjoyed by religious schools.

 

The amendment to charities law is likely to relate to implementation of the following recommendation of the Religious Freedom Review:

 

Recommendation 4: The Commonwealth should amend section 11 of the Charities Act 2013 to clarify that advocacy of a ‘traditional’ view of marriage would not, of itself, amount to a ‘disqualifying purpose’.

 

This is despite the fact that, during the 2017 marriage amendments, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission itself advised the Senate that such amendments were unnecessary.

 

Given same-sex marriage has now been legal for more than 18 months, there have also been no real-world examples of when this protection was actually required (if there had been, nobody would have been able to miss the squeals from the Australian Christian Lobby).

 

Even worse, the charities amendment could go further and protect other specific ‘religious beliefs’, including those proposed by then-Treasurer Morrison in his unsuccessful amendment to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2019,[xvi] such as:

 

‘the family structure of a man and a woman united in marriage with their children is a fundamental building block of human society, and this family structure has significant advantages for the nurture and raising of children…

‘the gender difference and complementarity of men and women is an inherent and fundamental feature of human society and is reflected in the gender difference and complementarity of a man and a woman united in marriage… [and]

‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth.’

 

It goes without saying that these offensive provisions should be kept out of the Charities Act 2013, or from any Australian law for that matter.

 

There are a range of other possible amendments that would increase, rather than reduce, discrimination in Australian society.

 

This includes changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 to specifically provide that employment Codes of Conduct cannot restrict the expression of religious views in the workplace no matter how offensive they may be to their colleagues or clients.

 

It could also include allowing parents or guardians to withdraw their children from any school class they morally disagree with, along the lines of this provision from Liberal Senator James Paterson’s failed Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017:[xvii]

 

if a person genuinely believes that material taught by the educational institution in a class is not consistent with the relevant marriage belief or relevant belief held by the person, the person may request the principal of the educational institution to… release the student from attendance of that class and any subsequent class.

 

Obviously, with a definition that broad, we could see parents withdrawing their children from a wide range of classes, anything from health and physical education, to science (where evolution may be taught) or even history.

 

**********

 

There are too many other possible negative amendments to even try to mention here. The list is as long as the imagined persecution of religious fundamentalists is wide.

 

It should be acknowledged that some of these amendments are more likely to be introduced, and passed, than others. I would sincerely hope that the Government simply ignores the more extreme calls for new special rights to discriminate.

 

But this is hope rather than expectation because, despite committing to let us see their Religious Discrimination Bill early this year, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have yet to be formally consulted on its contents.

 

In this vacuum, it is only natural for all groups who stand to lose from the Religious Discrimination Bill – not just LGBTI people, but women, single parents, de factos and divorced people too – to be fearful about what it may contain.

 

The only way for the Morrison Government to assuage these fears is to ensure that it produces a Religious Discrimination Bill, along the lines of the Age Discrimination Act, rather than a Religious Freedom Bill. And then to ensure that its legislation meets community expectations by engaging in genuine consultation with all sections of society, including LGBTI Australians.

 

I guess we’ll find out which option they’ve chosen in the days and weeks ahead.

 

Christian Porter

What kind of Religious Discrimination Bill will Attorney-General Christian Porter deliver?

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[ii] Scott Morrison meets with faith leaders on religious freedom bill but not LGBTQI advocates, Star Observer, 7 August 2019.

[iii] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[iv] Religious discrimination bill will safeguard people of faith, says attorney-general, Guardian Australia, 8 July 2019.

[v] Catholics, Scott Morrison to clash on religious freedom, The Australian, 20 August 2019.

[vi] And I promise that’s the end of my tortured metaphor…

[vii] ‘A pox on both their houses’: Senator warns of voter backlash if religious freedoms not protected, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2019.

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

[ix] Religious Freedom Review: Final Report.

[x] Such as the right to be protected against discrimination, as found in Article 26 of the ICCPR:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

[xi] Coalition pressured to include protections for religious institutions in discrimination bill, Guardian Australia, 15 August 2019.

[xii] NSW is the only other jurisdiction that includes protections against LGT vilification, although it does allow religious discussion as a defence. See for example section 38S(2)(c) of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977:

a public act, done reasonably and in good faith, for academic, artistic, scientific, research or religious discussion or instruction purposes or for other purposes in the public interest, including discussion or debate about and expositions of any act or matter [emphasis added].

[xiii] See Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

[xiv] See the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet website.

[xv] See No, we don’t have genuine marriage equality yet.

[xvi] From Parliament House website.

[xvii] From Senator Paterson’s website.