Don’t Rain on Our Parade

It’s reached that point in late February where, every day at 4:20pm, I visit the Bureau of Meteorology website to check the forecast for Saturday night’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

 

But, irrespective of whether the BoM says it will rain, hail, (smoke) or shine, there’s a much larger cloud hanging over Australia’s LGBTI community: the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

This legislation has the potential to adversely affect nearly every aspect of our existence.

 

From health-care, where it will allow doctors and pharmacists to deny hormone therapy, including puberty blockers, to trans and gender diverse people. And to refuse to provide access to PEP, and PrEP, exposing gay and bisexual men to greater risk of HIV transmission.

 

To the workplace, where employers and colleagues will be able to make comments that offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule us, as long as those statements are based on religious belief.

 

A manager could tell a staff member that gay sex is sinful, and same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered.

 

An interviewer may inform a trans applicant that gender is binary, and therefore their gender identity is not real.

 

A colleague could respond to a lesbian co-worker showing pictures of her family in the lunch-room that she has deliberately denied her children of a father, and will be condemned by god for her ‘lifestyle’ choices.

 

These are all entirely plausible scenarios. And all would be legally permitted under the Religious Discrimination Bill, because statements of belief are effectively exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

Indeed, statements of belief would be protected across all areas of public life, not just employment.

 

If this legislation passes, international tourists visiting Sydney this time next year could be subjected to degrading and demeaning comments anywhere and everywhere, at the airport, in the taxi or uber, on buses, trains and ferries, at the hotel or B&B, at tourist attractions, in cafes and restaurants, at shops and on the streets.

 

That sounds more like hate-song than ‘matesong’.

 

Except, once the party is over tourists will be able to leave these homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic comments behind, while LGBTI Australians will be stuck with them, like unshakeable glitter, invading every nook and cranny for years to come.

 

As a certain bank tried to remind us last week – and was then itself reminded by the community – ‘words do hurt’. It is unacceptable that our own Government is so focussed on ensuring we are all exposed to more hurtful words in our lives.

 

The Bill also further entrenches the special privileges granted to religious schools and other faith-based organisations to discriminate against teachers, other employees, students and, in some cases, people accessing their services, on the grounds of religious belief or lack of belief. Even where these services are being delivered using public funding.

 

It doesn’t explicitly grant new powers to religious schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. But then it doesn’t need to, either – because those powers already exist under the Sex Discrimination Act and, despite promising to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018, the Morrison Government has so far failed to shield some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

 

The theme for this year’s Mardi Gras is ‘What Matters’. In pushing ahead with the Religious Discrimination Bill, despite criticism from LGBTI organisations and a wide range of other civil society bodies, while failing to protect students in religious schools, it is clear the right to be a bigot matters much more to them than the safety of LGBT kids.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the current debate is that, from an LGBTI advocate’s perspective, it is a purely reactive one – defending existing rights under what are already-flawed anti-discrimination laws, rather than trying to make those laws better (for example, including bisexual, non-binary and intersex people in NSW’s out-dated Anti-Discrimination Act).

 

It takes attention away from other urgent law and policy reform, too.

 

We shouldn’t forget that this Saturday’s march takes place in a state where trans people still need to have surgery – which is both expensive, and for some people, unwanted – before being able to update their identity documentation.

 

And in a country where children born with variations in sex characteristics continue to suffer massive human rights violations, including coercive, intrusive and irreversible surgery and other medical treatments.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will take LGBTI rights in Australia backwards, when there is still so much progress left to be made, on these and many other issues.

 

It’s time the Morrison Government abandoned this legislative attack on our community, and instead worked with us to achieve positive change – maybe then we can finally celebrate under clear skies.

 

Mardi Gras flag

 

For more on this subject, see The Religious Discrimination Bill: What you should know.

 

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The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked

It is ironic that a Bill that uses the phrase ‘in good faith’ multiple times (four times in the First Exposure Draft, and nine times in the Second) was itself developed through a process that was the polar opposite.

The Religious Discrimination Bill is the end product of the Religious Freedom Review, which was a gift to religious fundamentalists during parliamentary debate about marriage equality in 2017, and was payback against LGBTI Australians for having the temerity to demand equal rights under secular law.

When that review was finally released in December 2018, Attorney-General Christian Porter promised that the Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill would be similar to other anti-discrimination laws, and ‘follow a very standard architecture’.[i] Instead he has delivered incredibly complex legislation with several unique, special rights for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against others (more on that below).

Mr Porter also stated in December 2018 that ‘we are well-advanced on the drafting of [the Bill] and which we would have out early next year [2019], so that people can see it.’ Yet the Liberal-National Government did not reveal any details of the Bill until after the May 2019 federal election, leaving voters in the dark about a central plank of their platform (perhaps some voters may have voted differently had they known their human rights would later come under sustained attack).

In August, the Guardian Australia reported that:

Christian Porter has sought to allay concerns that a federal religious discrimination bill could water down protections for LGBT people in state legislation. The attorney general told Guardian Australia the bill “is not intended to displace state law…”’[ii]

But when the First Exposure Draft Bill was released on 29 August it did exactly that, with clause 41 directly over-riding Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, and specifically over-riding Tasmania’s best practice protections against ‘conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults of ridicules’[iii] others, including women, LGBTI people and others.

At no point between December 2018 and August 2019 did the Morrison Government consult with anyone other than the religious organisations who would benefit from the Bill. There was no engagement with any of the people who stood to lose the most, from women, to LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, and people with disability.

Even when the Attorney-General released the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill for public comment – and received a deluge of criticism from representatives of those groups, as well as the vast majority of civil society organisations, and even the Australian Human Rights Commission, the independent body who would be responsible for overseeing any legislation once passed – Porter, and the Government, have chosen to ignore that feedback.

In fact, the only major substantive change to the Bill was something demanded by religious organisations – to expand its religious exceptions even further, allowing religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate on the basis of religious belief in employment. Even when receiving taxpayers money to deliver public services.

It is completely unsurprising that, having undertaken a bad faith process to develop its legislation, the Government has produced what is essentially a ‘bad faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill. A Bill that prioritises and privileges the rights of religious individuals and organisations over and above everyone else.

This can be seen in how the Second Exposure Draft[iv] differs from the First in relation to its four major problems[v] – or, rather, in how there is nothing to separate the two Bills, meaning the Government has not addressed these flaws.

 

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

Clause 42 (which was previously clause 41) continues to exempt ‘statements of belief’ from discrimination complaints under all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, including the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and Tasmania’s best practice Anti-Discrimination Act 1998.

Indeed, multiple changes to the Bill will actually ensure more discriminatory statements of belief are protected from legal consequences. This includes expanding the definition of statements of belief (so that they do not need to align with the mainstream views of any religion, but can be from the extreme fringes of faith), as well as providing that comments will be protected even where they are ‘moderately’ intimidating towards the victim.[vi]

Nor has the Government addressed the constitutional flaws of this provision. Because the Bill would introduce a Commonwealth defence to state laws, state tribunals would legally be unable to determine whether the defence was valid. So where a person makes a complaint of discrimination, and a respondent claims it was a ‘statement of belief’, it would need to be referred from the tribunal to a court to hear that particular issue, and then referred back to the tribunal to determine the remainder of the complaint – massively increasing the costs and time involved, with the likely outcome that many discrimination complaints will be withdrawn no matter how valid they are.

Overall, clause 42 will still encourage degrading and demeaning comments about women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability, and even people from minority faiths,[vii] in all areas of public life, from workplaces to schools and universities, health care, aged care and other community services, to cafes, restaurants and even shops.

 

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

There have been some minor improvements to the ‘conscientious objection’ provisions in the Second Exposure Draft (previously clauses 8(5) and (6), now clauses 8(6) and (7) of the Bill). This includes narrowing the list of health practitioners who will be able to take advantage of these sections, as well as including a note that they are not intended to allow practitioners to refuse to provide a service to a category of people.

But, in practice, these changes are superficial rather than substantive. The list of practitioners who remain covered:

  • Doctors
  • Midwives
  • Nurses
  • Pharmacists, and
  • Psychologists

means the vast majority of interactions between patients and the health system are nevertheless potentially jeopardised via ‘conscientious objection’.

Meanwhile, the distinction between refusing to provide a service to a category of people (which would not be permitted) and refusing to provide a category of service to people (which would be) is so blurry as to be meaningless.

As Attorney-General Porter himself confirmed when releasing the Second Exposure Draft, it is designed to protect ‘a GP who did not want to “engage in hormone therapies” for a trans person. “That’s fine, but you have to exercise that in a consistent way, so you don’t engage in the procedure at all.”’[viii]

The net effect is that GPs and pharmacists will be empowered to:

  • Refuse to provide reproductive health services, even where this disproportionately affects women
  • Refuse to provide PEP and/or PrEP, even there this disproportionately affects gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, and
  • Refuse to provide hormone therapy (including puberty blockers), even where this disproportionately affects trans and gender diverse people.

Overall, clauses 8(6) and (7) will still encourage practitioners to refuse to provide vital health care services to some of the most vulnerable members of the Australian community.

 

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

In fact, as hinted at earlier, the religious exceptions contained in the Second Exposure Draft will make it even easier for even more religious organisations to discriminate in even more circumstances.

Clause 11 (which was previously clause 10), provides an exception to all religious schools and universities, as well as ‘registered public benevolent institutions’ (even where providing commercial services to members of the public), as well as ‘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)’.

This exception allows these bodies to discriminate on the ground of religion in both employment, and who they provide services to (or withhold services from).

The test for determining whether the organisation can (ab)use these special privileges is also much easier to satisfy in the Second Exposure Draft. In fact, there are now two alternative tests, and the organisation need only satisfy one:

  • Clause 11(3) is already a lower standard than the existing religious exception in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), because the organisation can simply act, ‘in good faith, in conduct to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the same religion’ – unlike section 37(1)(d) of the SDA, these acts do not need to be ‘necessary’.
  • Clause 11(1) sets an even lower standard again. It provides that a ‘religious body does not discriminate against a person under this Act by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion.’

This second test is entirely subjective. A religious body is only required to demonstrate that one other person considers their discrimination is in accordance with their faith. They don’t even have to agree with the discrimination itself! This hurdle is so easy to clear that it is almost impossible to imagine any scenario where a court or tribunal will disallow religious discrimination by these organisations.

Which is particularly devastating because the Second Exposure Draft also expands the types of organisations that can take advantage of these privileges.

Clauses 32(8) and (10) allow religious hospitals, aged care services and accommodation providers to discriminate in employment on the ground of religion. And clauses 33(2) and (4) permit religious camps and conference sites to discriminate in who they provide services to (even where these are facilities run on a commercial basis and otherwise open to the public).

As I have written previously, these religious exceptions will mean that:

  • A professor can be denied a job because they are Jewish.
  • A doctor can be refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.
  • A school student can be expelled because they are atheist.
  • A homeless person can miss out on a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.
  • A charity worker can be rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.
  • An aged care employee can lose shifts because they are agnostic.

Overall, clause 11 (and related clauses) will fundamentally divide Australia, by empowering religious organisations to discriminate both in employment, and in who they provide services to, on the grounds of religion. And they will be able to do so while using taxpayers’ money. Your money. My money, Our money.

 

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

Clauses 8(3) and (5) (which were previously 8(3) and (4)) are the provisions which were created in response to the circumstances of a certain ex-footballer – by making it incredibly difficult for organisations with revenue of at least $50 million per annum to impose codes of conduct that prevent an employee from making discriminatory comments outside their ordinary hours of employment.

These clauses have been slightly improved in the Second Exposure Draft. By clarifying they only protect employees in conduct ‘other than in the course of the employee’s employment’, it actually applies to a reduced set of circumstances.

But Attorney-General Porter has also included a new clause 8(4), which makes things much worse again – by preventing qualifying bodies (like legal admission or medical registration bodies) from taking into account degrading or demeaning public comments which applicants may have made ‘unless compliance with the rule by the person is an essential requirement of the profession, trade or occupation’.

Previously, these bodies may have denied admission or registration on the basis that the applicant was not a ‘fit and proper person’ – instead, homophobes, biphobes and transphobes will be encouraged to discriminate with little or no professional consequences.

**********

Any of these problems should be sufficient in and of itself for anyone interested in human rights for all Australians, and not just for some, to oppose the Bill. All of them together should be enough for Labor, the Greens and Senate Cross-Bench to vote against it – although only the Greens’ opposition is secure at this stage.

And that’s not even including some of the other ‘lesser’ problems in the package of ‘religious freedom’ laws the Government is seeking to pass, which are each significant in their own right:[ix]

  • Creating a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission, to advance the ‘religious freedom’ agenda, even though such a position was not recommended by the Government’s own Ruddock Review, and while LGBTI Australians continue to be denied a Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics Commissioner.
  • Amending the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) to reinforce the ability of religious educational institutions to reject same-sex weddings, even where they provide those services to the public on a commercial basis – and despite the fact such a ban was not previously required to reject divorced people remarrying (meaning this is essentially an anti-marriage equality provision),[x] and
  • Amending the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) to ‘protect’ charities advocating against an inclusive definition of marriage, even though the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) explicitly stated such a clause was not needed, and despite the fact no other type of advocacy (from Indigenous, to environmental or LGBTI) is protected in this way.

Unfortunately, there are even more problems in the Religious Discrimination Bill, and its two related Bills (the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill), although it would take too long to describe them all in detail here.

In short, these are deeply flawed Bills, developed through a bad faith process, that will have a terrible impact on women, LGBTI people, people with disability and others. If passed, they would lead to increased division between different communities, changing our country for the worse. They must be blocked.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this debate is that a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill, one that protected people of faith and no faith against discrimination on the basis of who they are, would have been a welcome development.

If the Government had prepared the Religious Discrimination Bill in good faith, it would have been met with substantial community goodwill. Instead, they listened to religious fundamentalists, and have now released two slightly different versions of legislation containing the same fundamental flaw – it increases discrimination rather than reducing it.

Significantly, the victims of the Government’s Bill will not only be women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, and people with disability. People from minority faiths, atheists and agnostics all stand to lose under Attorney-General Porter’s, and Prime Minister Morrison’s, disingenuous and disastrous Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.

Anti-discrimination legislation should reduce discrimination, not increase it. It should unite us, rather than divide us. The Religious Discrimination Bill fails on those most fundamental criteria. It is a bad faith Bill, and the only possible good outcome from here would be for it to be rejected in its entirety.

 

Take Action

One of my main objectives for the blog this year is to include practical information on as many posts as possible about actions readers can take. In this instance, there are at least three things you can do:

 

  1. Write a submission on the Second Exposure Draft Bills

The Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills are open for public consultation until Friday 31 January 2020. Details of the Bills are here, and you can send written submissions via email to FoRConsultation@ag.gov.au

You don’t have to be a lawyer to make a submission, nor do you need to comment on all of the Bills’ many problems. Instead, you can simply describe your general concerns about the proposed legislation, as well as any specific fears about its impact on you and your community. Some suggested points include:

  • All Australians deserve to be protected against discrimination.
  • This includes people of faith, and no faith. But it must also include women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability and others.
  • Unfortunately, the Second Exposure Draft Religious Freedom Bill will increase discrimination against many groups, including people from minority faiths, rather than reduce it.
  • It will encourage people to make ‘statements of belief’ that degrade and demean others just because of who they are, in workplaces, schools and universities, health care, aged care and community services, cafes, restaurants, shops and other public places.
  • It will encourage doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners to refuse to provide vital health services to vulnerable Australians.
  • It will encourage religious organisations to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith, in schools and universities, hospitals, aged care and other community services, even where they are delivering essential public services using public funding.
  • The Government should scrap the current version of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and prepare a new Bill that reduces discrimination rather than increasing it.
  • If the Government fails to do so, the Parliament must reject the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill, and associated ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.

 

  1. Write to MPs and Senators expressing your concerns

While submissions about the Exposure Draft Bills are valuable, it is essential you also convey your concerns directly to your elected representatives.

It is especially important to write to the following:

  • ALP MPs and Senators
  • Greens MP and Senators
  • Centre Alliance Senators (if you’re in South Australia)
  • Senator Jacqui Lambie (if you’re in Tasmania), and
  • Liberate moderate/gay and lesbian MPs (including Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson, Angie Bell, Warren Entsch, Senator Dean Smith).

PFLAG Australia has made this process easy, using the website Equality, Not Discrimination.

You can also access a range of materials from Equality Australia here, including a submission-writing toolkit.

 

  1. Attend a public rally against the Bills

For those who prefer their activism to be on the streets, there will also be a number of public rallies around the country in coming weeks, including:

Sydney: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Sydney Town Hall

Melbourne: Sunday 9 February at 1pm, State Library of Victoria

Brisbane: Saturday 1 February at 5pm, King George Square, and

Perth: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Forrest Chase

The bad faith Religious Discrimination Bill, and the two other proposed ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills, can be blocked, but only if we all take action together.

 

Christian Porter

Attorney-General Christian Porter, author of the ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

If you have 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. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

 

Footnotes:

[i] Attorney-General Media Conference, 13 December 2018.

[ii]Christian Porter says religious freedom bill won’t erode state LGBT protections’ 12 July 2019.

[iii] Section 17(1) Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

[iv] The complete Religious Freedom Bills – Second Exposure Drafts (which includes the updated Religious Discrimination Bill) can be found here.

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

[vi] Clause 42(2) provides that statements of belief will not be protected if it is:

  • malicious
  • that would, or is likely to, harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify another person or group of persons; or
  • would be considered ‘counselling, promoting, encouraging or urging conduct that would constitute a serious offence.’

[vii] See The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill.

[viii] ‘Rules for doctors, pharmacists tightened in new religious discrimination bill’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2019.

[ix] For more detail, see The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[x] Unfortunately, it would not be the only provision in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) which discriminated against same-sex couples, despite the postal survey result. For more see: No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet.

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.

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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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.

The Right to Learn

The right to education is one of the most fundamental of all human rights.

 

This is both because education has incredible intrinsic value, and because of the significant consequences it can have on an individual’s life outcomes, from employment to health, housing and justice, as well as the ability to fully participate in society.

 

The community also has a collective interest in ensuring that all of its members are able to access the right to learn. Why then does Australia allow ongoing inequality in the enjoyment of this important right?

 

I could be talking here about the gross disparity in educational outcomes for Indigenous Australians compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts (with the latest Closing the Gap report showing that Governments are not on track to meet commitments for school attendance, and literacy and numeracy).

 

I could also be talking about the completely disproportionate levels of funding provided by the Commonwealth to private schools over public schools, with ACARA estimating that the Commonwealth Government allocated $8,053 for every private school student compared to just $2,645 per public school student in 2016-17. (Apparently some students are worth more than others.)

 

Instead, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the fact that cisgender heterosexual students are better able to exercise their right to learn than lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

 

This is because cisgender heterosexual students in Australia are free to enjoy the right to education without fear of discrimination simply on the basis of these attributes. Unfortunately, the same is not true for far too many LGBT students around the country.

 

That is because the anti-discrimination laws of several Australian jurisdictions allow religious schools to lawfully discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes:

 

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984

 

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (which in fact allows all private schools and colleges to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality, and transgender, even where the school is not religious)

 

The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010

 

The Western Australian Equality Opportunity Act 1984, and

 

The South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (although for South Australia the legal situation is not entirely certain).

 

On the other hand, LGBT students are legally protected against discrimination at religious schools in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory [for a complete summary of the situation nationally see: Back to School, Back to Discrimination for LGBT Students and Teachers].

 

However, we should not allow this conversation to be dominated by dry legal analysis, when it is the discrimination these laws permit that we should highlight.

 

For example, these were just some of the responses to my 2017 survey looking at The State of Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Australia:

 

“I was given detention and threatened with suspension for revealing I was attracted to girls at a Christian high school. I was forced to endure hands-on prayer to rid me of the homosexual demons.”

 

“I was at a Christian private school in north Sydney, we had lessons in religion that focused on why being gay is wrong and how you can change.”

 

“My friend goes to a Catholic school and is bisexual. Her music teacher gives her shit about being bisexual and says that she is sinning and she will be going to hell.”

 

I also know from bitter personal experience just how toxic these environments can be, having (barely) survived five years at a religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s.

 

As these accounts demonstrate, the discrimination LGBT students endure at the hands of religious schools concerns far more than simply admission, or expulsion – instead, it is more insidious, and effects every moment of every school day.

 

The fact this prejudice is legally allowed in several Australian jurisdictions is almost unbelievable – and totally unacceptable.

 

Students should be focused on studying for their exams, not studying how to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

Students should be worrying about whether the person they ask to take to the formal says yes, not worrying that they will be suspended because their date is the same gender they are.

 

Students should be doing what most teenagers do – complaining about their school uniform – not fearing punishment for wearing the uniform that matches their gender identity.

 

Students should be learning what they need to stay safe in their health and physical education, and sex-ed, classes, not being made to feel invisible and forced to pick up bits and pieces from far less reliable sources.

 

Students who experience homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying should be able to have confidence that their school will be on their side, not wondering whether they will be the ones disciplined instead simply because they are LGBT.

 

Students should be thinking about what they would like to do after they finish their education, not contemplating whether they will even survive it.

 

Above all, students should be given the gift of curiosity about the world around them, not taught that the world hates them because of who they are.

 

These are just some of the ways in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are currently denied the same right to learn that their cisgender heterosexual equivalents enjoy.

 

It is a situation that has been created by the actions of politicians – and has been allowed to persist because of their inaction.

 

That includes Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s broken promise, made in October last year, to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination by amending the Sex Discrimination Act before the end of 2018.

 

Instead, we now have an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into religious exceptions that won’t report until April 2020, and a re-elected Liberal-National Government that likely won’t do anything until the second half of next year (at the earliest).

 

This is simply not good enough. We must remind them of that fact every single day until they act – because LGBT students will be discriminated against every single day until they do.

 

We must also pressure the state governments of NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia to fix their own broken laws. There is no possible excuse any of them could proffer that would justify allowing this mistreatment to continue.

 

Because reading is fundamental, as is writing, arithmetic, and all of the other essential skills that are imparted by teachers today. And all students deserve access to them, irrespective of who they are.

 

Education is a human right that must be provided to everyone equally, without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That currently isn’t the case in Australia. It’s something we must change for the sake of LGBT students now, and for the generations yet to come.

 

The right to learn

All students have an equal right to education, including LGBT students.

Australia’s (Mis)Treatment of LGBTI Refugees

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here

 

Of all the issues that involve human rights violations against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Australia there are two that particularly stand out (at least in my view).

 

One – ongoing coercive medical treatments and surgeries on children born with intersex variations – I have written about previously.

 

The other is the deliberate mistreatment of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum by the Australian Government.

 

Of course, this abuse is only one small part of Australia’s broader shameful approach to refugee issues, but, as we shall see below, it does raise specific issues around where people are processed and how claims are assessed.

 

The following are three key areas where the Australian Government’s approach to LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum should urgently be improved, as well as one suggestion for further consideration.

 

  1. End the detention, processing and settlement of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise homosexuality

 

To begin, I should reiterate my personal opposition to Australia’s overall ‘offshore processing’ policy, which essentially involves the indefinite detention of refugees in prisons in the South Pacific. There is no justification for this approach.

 

There can also be no possible justification for the detention, processing and settlement of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum in countries that criminalise homosexuality. And yet that is exactly what Australia has done for the past seven years.

 

This includes Nauru, where homosexuality remained criminalised until May 2016,[i] and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, a country where the maximum penalty for male same-sex intercourse is still 14 years imprisonment.

 

There is no exception for people held in Australia’s immigration detention facilities in these countries either. This is demonstrated by the following report from Behrouz Boochani in The Guardian:

 

It was five years ago in Fox prison camp. A group of immigration officers accompanied by a number of interpreters burst in. All of a sudden, one of the officers stood on a chair precisely like a king’s representative in ancient times, like one of those men reading the king’s announcement for convicts. The officer took a piece of paper, and surrounded by dozens of refugees he started to read. The announcement was serious, decisive, to the point and threatening, like his voice. “Homosexuality is illegal in Papua New Guiana [sic] and considered as a crime. If anyone in the immigration detention engages in this behaviour, he will be sentenced to 14 years in prison.” It was a dire warning from the prison’s officials and directly targeted homosexual prisoners.

 

The article then details the horrendous impact of these laws on Alex* (pseudonym), a gay Iranian refugee imprisoned on Manus Island, who was gradually but inevitably broken by the homophobic environment there, through intimidation, harassment, abuse and even rape. His experiences ultimately led him to risk his life again by returning to Iran, before seeking asylum elsewhere – and served as a cautionary tale to other queer men on the island. As Boochani concluded:

 

No one knows how many gay, transgender or bisexual refugees live on Manus, but what is clear is that the suffering they experienced in their countries has been repeated on Manus in a disastrous way. Fear, humiliation, threat, banishment, rape – these are all concepts and experiences lived daily by these men. Gay, transgender and bisexual men here have experienced even greater torment than other refugees. [emphasis added]

 

Successive Australian Governments have been fully aware of these abuses. I know, because I have written about this issue to multiple Immigration Ministers,[ii] including then Minister – now Prime Minister – Scott Morrison in 2014. His Department’s response failed to even guarantee that LGBTI asylum seekers would not be reported to PNG police for same-sex sexual activity.

 

Given his ‘tough on border security’ rhetoric, there appears little hope that a re-elected Morrison Liberal-National Government would take any action to address these human rights violations.

 

On the other hand, there is some chance that a Shorten Labor Government might finally take a different approach. This is at least in part due to a commitment in the 2018 Australian Labor Party National Platform that:

 

Labor will not detain, process or resettle lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex refugees or asylum seekers in countries which have criminal laws against any of these communities as it makes these places unsafe environments for all of them.[iii]

 

Consequently, there is a possibility the situation may change, along with the Government, on Saturday 18 May – although that will only happen if LGBTI and refugee advocates maintain pressure on Labor to fulfil this commitment.

 

160427 Refugee Submission No Kissing

The slide from the Salvation Army presentation that was shown to people seeking asylum after their arrival on Manus Island (source: Guardian Australia).

 

  1. Improve the assessment process for LGBTI claims for asylum

 

This is another major problem confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia, one that has existed for many years, even decades.

 

Practically, the decision-makers of the Refugee and Migration Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (known until 2015 as the Refugee Review Tribunal) have struggled to appropriately consider the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities from other countries, leading to a very low rate of success in receiving refugee protection (a 2003 study by Professor Jenni Millbank showed that at most only 20% of claims were approved).

 

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

 

Tribunal officials have long been accused of judging applicants based on a slew of Western gay stereotypes, such as effeminate manner or dress. In one notorious case, an applicant was deemed not gay after failing questions about Madonna, Better Midler, Oscar Wilde and Greco-Roman wrestling. The man barely spoke English and was mystified by the topics. “I don’t understand it,” he said to his interviewer. “I’m sorry.”

 

When in 2004 his case came before the High Court on appeal (after the Federal Court had first ruled against the applicant), the justices were staggered by the line of questioning used by the Tribunal, describing it as very odd, and almost bordering on the bizarre. “Madonna, Better Midler and so on are phenomena of Western culture,” declared Justice Michael Kirby at the time. “In Iran, where there is death for some people who are homosexuals, these are not in the forefront of the mind. Survival is.”

 

Unfortunately, more recent cases do not indicate that this inherent Western-gay bias has been overcome. The SMH further reported that:

 

Last year [2016], a man from Bangladesh was rejected in part because he was unable to correctly pronounce or spell the name of a Sydney gay club he’d visited called the Stonewall, according to Tribunal documents – which incorrectly referred to the nightclub as a “day venue”. In a similar 2014 case, an asylum seeker was told he wasn’t gay because, although he described having two monogamous relationships, he hadn’t “explored his homosexuality” by going to Sydney’s gay bars, and had little knowledge of Oxford Street.

 

There are additional reports of Tribunal members asking inappropriately sexual questions, as well as applicants being encouraged to supply video of themselves engaging in sexual activity in an attempt to ‘prove’ their homosexuality to the Tribunal. This occurs because, as the SMH notes, “there are no guidelines for dealing with LGBTQI applicants.”

 

This situation must change, as a matter of priority. Unfortunately, there is no indication that a re-elected Morrison Liberal-National Government will take action to address these problems.

 

Once again, however, these is some reason to be optimistic about a Shorten Labor Government, which includes these commitments in its Platform:

 

The assessment and review of protection claims of specific lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer asylum seekers will be underpinned by appropriate and relevant assessment tools and processes that reflect cultural experiences of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer community.

In assessing asylum claims where the fear of persecution arises from a person’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer status, the fact that the country the person is fleeing has criminal penalties for engaging in homosexual sex is sufficient of itself to establish that fear of persecution is well-founded, and any assessment of the asylum seeker’s identity and fear must take account of the very different manifestations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer identity that other cultures, especially ones profoundly hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people, necessarily engender.

 

Labor will ensure asylum seekers who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer will be assessed by officers who have expertise and empathy with anti-discrimination principles and human rights law. Officers, translators and interpreters at all levels of the assessment process will have specific lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer cultural awareness training to ensure the discrimination asylum seekers face in their country of origin or transit are not replicated.

 

As with ending detention of LGBTI refugees in countries criminalising homosexuality however, the challenge will be in ensuring that a new Government follows through on its promises.

 

  1. Increase support for LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

 

Another area where urgent reform is needed is the level of support provided to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees within Australia.

 

The few dedicated support services that exist receive minimal funding, and consequently are unable to meet the significant needs of this vulnerable population.

 

Particular challenges include the fact that LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum may not be comfortable in disclosing their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics to services based on their ethnicity or background, but at the same time may not be welcomed by or receive adequate support from LGBTI services.

 

As noted in a 2018 Star Observer article on this topic:

 

LGBTI asylum seekers can also find themselves caught between lack of acceptance from diaspora communities and lack of understanding from mainstream LGBTI communities.

 

First and foremost, these gaps should be addressed by providing direct Government funding for peer-led LGBTI refugee services. However, this alone may not be sufficient to ensure LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum are able to access the full breadth of services they may require.

 

Therefore, there should also be funding to support education and training programs for ethnic community organisations to assist them to be welcoming environments for LGBTI refugees (as well as inclusiveness training for interpreters, who have a key role to play not just in supporting LGBTI people seeking asylum to access services, but also in their claims for protection).

 

There is also a need for LGBTI community organisations to provide greater social support and outreach to LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia. This would help to establish connections between LGBTI refugees and the wider LGBTI community, and may result in better social outcomes over the medium- to long-term.

 

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While the above three issues are presented as concrete recommendations for change, the following suggestion is raised to prompt further discussion:

 

  1. Introduce quotas or targets for the intake of LGBTI refugees

 

I should preface this discussion by saying that, philosophically, I don’t support the introduction of quotas or targets within Australia’s overall refugee program based on demographic criteria. Instead, Australia should accept refugees based on the assessment of need by the UN Refugee Agency (the UNHCR).

 

However, that is not how the Australian refugee framework currently operates.

 

Since 2015, the Australian Government has adopted a policy of prioritising Christian refugees from the Middle East (which itself is/was a part of the special quota for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq, operating in addition to Australia’s regular refugee intake).

 

I agree with many of the criticisms of this approach made in this New York Times column, Australia’s immoral preference for Christian refugees, although these criticisms do not appear to have influenced Australia’s ongoing pro-Christian bias.

 

Indeed, it seems the Morrison Liberal-National Government wants to introduce even greater demographic criteria within the refugee program.

 

During the election campaign, it has announced ‘the proposed makeup of the humanitarian program for the first time. This will include an overall target of 60% of the offshore component allocated to women. Women made up 50.8% in 2017-18.’[iv] [emphasis added]

 

In this context, the obvious question is: if Christians and women receive allocated quotas (or targets), then why not lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees?

 

Indeed, there are strong arguments in favour of this approach.

 

Based on analysis of 2018 UNHCR figures, and the 2019 ILGA State-Sponsored Homophobia Report, of the five top refugee-hosting countries, four retain criminal sanctions for homosexuality:

 

Country

Number of refugees Criminal penalties for homosexuality
Turkey 3.5 million Not criminalised
Uganda 1.4 million Life imprisonment
Pakistan 1.4 million 10 years
Lebanon 1 million 1 year
Iran 979,400

Death penalty

 

A significant number of LGBTI refugees are therefore unsafe and at risk even after they have fled persecution elsewhere.

 

There are also a number of countries in our own Oceania region that criminalise homosexuality, including PNG, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Cook Islands (all of which have a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment), Tonga (10 years imprisonment) and Samoa (5 years imprisonment). And that’s not mentioning the recent attempt by the Government of Brunei to introduce the death penalty (which they have backed down from – for now – but retain a punishment of imprisonment up to 10 years).

 

As stated earlier, my personal preference is that there are no demographic criteria for determining the intake of refugees. But, if Australia’s current approach, which gives priority to Christians and women, does continue, I can see no good reason why there should not also be quotas or targets for the intake of refugees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex.

 

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Disclaimer: As with all posts, this article reflects my own views and not those of any employer, past or present.

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Of course, just because homosexuality has been decriminalized in Nauru doesn’t necessarily mean it is now a welcoming environment for LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum. This is confirmed by the following accounts, including:

In detention: Gay on Nauru, in Archer Magazine (July 2018) and

True love in Nauru, in The Monthly (September 2017)

[ii] Lest I be accused of partisanship, I also wrote to Labor Immigration Ministers Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor on the same subject in 2012 and 2013.

[iii] This is a commitment I drafted ahead of the 2015 National Conference, and remains one of my proudest achievements in LGBTI advocacy.

[iv] Of course, there is a great irony in the Coalition supporting a gender-based quota for refugee intake, while it steadfastly opposes gender-based quotas for the pre-selection of its candidates.