What’s Wrong With South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984?

 

This post is part of a series looking at Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, and examining how well, or how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people against discrimination. The other posts in the series can be found here.

 

In particular, they assess Commonwealth, State and Territory legislation in terms of the following three issues:

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

 

Unfortunately, while South Australia has expanded the range of people legally protected against discrimination, the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 remains grossly inadequate because of the breadth of religious exceptions it offers, and its failure to establish LGBTI vilification offences.

 

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Protected Attributes

 

Section 29 of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex South Australians from discrimination.

 

Sub-section (2a) defines discrimination “on the ground of gender identity” to include (among other things):

  • “if the person treats another unfavourably because the other is or has been a person of a particular gender identity or because of the other’s past sex;
  • if the person treats another unfavourably on the basis of a characteristic that appertains generally to persons of a particular gender identity, or on the basis of a presumed characteristic that is generally imputed to persons of a particular gender identity… and
  • if the person requires a person of a particular gender identity to assume characteristics of a sex with which the person does not identify.”

 

Importantly, unlike some jurisdictions, South Australia protects all trans people against discrimination (and not just people with binary gender identities).

 

The protections against discrimination “on the ground of sexual orientation” contained in sub-section (3) are similarly broad, and would cover all lesbian, gay and bisexual South Australians.

 

The Relationships Register Act 2016 has expanded this coverage even further by introducing a new protected attribute of ‘intersex status’, with the addition of sub-section 29(4)[i].

 

With this change, South Australia has become only the fourth jurisdiction in Australia – after the Commonwealth, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory – to explicitly protect intersex people against discrimination. Although it should be noted that in the March 2017 Darlington Statement, intersex activists called for this terminology to be replaced by a protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’.

 

Summary: The South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people against discrimination – with the 2017 inclusion of ‘intersex status’ making it only the fourth Australian jurisdiction, out of nine, to cover the entire LGBTI community.

 

 

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Religious Exceptions

 

Unfortunately, while the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 will soon be close to best practice on protected attributes, in terms of religious exceptions it is anything but.

 

Section 50 sets out an incredibly broad range of circumstances in which religious organisations are legally entitled to discriminate against LGBTI South Australians:

Religious bodies

(1) This Part does not render unlawful discrimination in relation to-

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

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

(ba) the administration of a body established for religious purposes in accordance with the precepts of that religion; or

(c) any other practice of a body established for religious purposes that conforms with the precepts of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

 

While paragraphs (a) and (b) are at least directly related to religious appointments – and therefore somewhat defensible because of their connection to freedom of religion – paragraph (ba) and especially paragraph (c) effectively encourage discrimination by religious organisations in healthcare and other community services.

 

It is also unclear whether this general exception allows religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students. That is because there is a separate section which provides exceptions for religious schools regarding students (section 37), and it does not allow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

However, unlike the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 which protects LGBT students, there is nothing in the general religious exception in section 50 of South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984 which states that it does not apply to religious schools.

 

This means that it is still possible the general religious exception in section 50 allows discrimination despite what section 37 says – a risk even the SA Equal Opportunity Commission expressed concern about in their submission to the South Australian Law Reform Institute’s review of Exceptions under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (p73). Indeed, the Law Reform Institute recommended:

“that section 50(1)(c) should be removed to make it clear that it does not apply to discrimination with respect to potential or current students of religious educational institutions” (pp83-84).

 

The situation is also complicated with respect to teachers in religious schools, with sub-section 34(3) setting out a separate, specific exception in that area:

“(3) This Division does not apply to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation,  gender identity or intersex status in relation to employment or engagement for the purposes of an educational institution if-

(a) the educational institution is administered in accordance with the precepts of a particular religion and the discrimination is founded on the precepts of that religion; and

(b) the educational authority administering the institution has a written policy stating its position in relation to the matter; and

(c) a copy of the policy is given to a person who is to be interviewed for or offered employment with the authority or a teacher who is to be offered engagement as a contractor by the authority; and

(d) a copy of the policy is provided on request, free of charge-

(i) to employees and contractors and prospective employees and contractors of the authority to whom it relates or may relate; and

(ii) to students, prospective students and parents and guardians of students and prospective students of the institution; and

(iii) to other members of the public.”

 

Some may see this as a relatively positive approach, because at the very least it allows everyone to be informed about the policies any particular school adopts. And, admittedly, it is preferable to the carte blanche approach adopted in other states (and especially in New South Wales).

 

However, there are three important qualifications to this ‘benign’ assessment:

  • It still allows discrimination against teachers and other employees in religious schools. This discrimination – which has no connection whatsoever to the ability of LGBTI teachers and other staff to do their jobs – remains unacceptable, irrespective of the procedural steps a school must first negotiate,
  • It is (I believe) unique in Australia in that it specifically states that religious schools can discriminate on the basis of intersex status (despite there being no supporting evidence of doctrines, tenets or beliefs which discriminate against people born with intersex variations), and
  • The general religious exception in sub-section 50(c) may still apply, for the same reason that it may allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students – meaning it is possible that religious schools can ‘pick and choose’ the basis on which they discriminate against teachers and employees (and therefore potentially avoid these procedural hurdles altogether).

 

There is one final religious exception which allows discrimination against LGBTI South Australians – sub-section 35(2b) allows ‘associations’ to exclude and otherwise adversely treat people on the basis of their intersex status, gender identity or sexual orientation “if the association is administered in accordance with the precepts of a particular religion and the discrimination is founded on the precepts of that religion.”

 

Summary: The religious exceptions contained in the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 allow discrimination against LGBTI people in a wide range of circumstances, including healthcare, community services, associations and in education (although there is some uncertainty about how far the exceptions apply in that area).

 

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Anti-Vilification Coverage

 

This section will be the shortest of this post – because there is none. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex South Australians have no protection against anti-LGBTI vilification under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984[ii].

 

This is despite the fact that an entire stand-alone act exists with respect to racial vilification (the Racial Vilification Act 1996). Given homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are just as damaging, and just as harmful, as racism, the lack of equivalent protections against anti-LGBTI vilification is, in my opinion, shameful.

 

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Other Issues

There are a few additional issues in the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 that it would be remiss not to at least mention.

 

On the negative side, there is a very broad ‘inherent requirement’ exception in relation to employment. Sub-section 34(2) provides that:

“This Division does not apply to discrimination on the ground of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in relation to employment or engagement for which it is a genuine occupational requirement that a person be of a particular sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.”

 

It is difficult to think of many jobs in which it is an inherent requirement that someone be of a particular sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It would be interesting to see on what possible basis the drafters attempted to justify this sub-section.

 

Similarly, sub-section 34(4) allows discrimination in employment against transgender people generally, and non-binary gender diverse people in particular, on the basis of their appearance, stating that:

“This Division does not apply to discrimination on the ground of gender identity in relation to employment or engagement if the discrimination is for the purposes of enforcing standards of appearance and dress reasonably required for the employment or engagement.”

 

Once again, it is hard to see how such discrimination can possibly be justified, and I would argue that both sub-sections (34(2) and (4)) should be repealed.

 

On the other hand, there are two exceptions that allow positive discrimination in favour of LGBTI people.

 

The first, in sub-section 35(2a), permits LGBT-specific associations to be created (for “persons of a particular gender identity”, for “persons of a particular sexual orientation (other than heterosexuality), or for “persons of intersex status”, noting that heterosexuality remains privileged within Australian society).

 

The second, in section 47, authorises actions designed to overcome discrimination against minority groups:

Measures intended to achieve equality

This Part does not render unlawful an act done for the purpose of carrying out a scheme or undertaking intended to ensure that persons of a particular sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, have equal opportunities with, respectively, all other persons, in circumstances to which this Part applies.”

 

Nevertheless, while these final two provisions are welcome, they do not negate the harmful aspects of the Act, including its overly-generous religious exceptions, and the complete lack of anti-vilification coverage for LGBTI South Australians.

 

It remains to be seen whether the Liberal Government, under Premier Steven Marshall, will take any action to improve the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984.

 

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Will Liberal Premier Steven Marshall amend South Australia’s out-dated Equal Opportunity Act 1984?

 

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Footnotes:

[i] “(4) For the purposes of this Act, a person discriminates on the ground of intersex status-

(a) if the person treats another unfavourably because of the other’s intersex status or past intersex status; or

(b) if the person treats another unfavourably because the other does not comply, or is not able to comply, with a particular requirement and-

(i) the nature of the requirement is such that a substantially higher proportion of persons who are not of intersex status complies, or is able to comply, with the requirement than of those of intersex status; and

(ii) the requirement is not reasonable in the circumstances of the case; or

(c) if the person treats another unfavourably on the basis of a characteristic that appertains generally to persons of intersex status, or presumed intersex status, or on the basis of a presumed characteristic that is generally imputed to persons of intersex status; or

(d) if the person treats another unfavourably because of an attribute of or a circumstance affecting a relative or associate of the other, being an attribute or circumstances described in the preceding paragraphs.”

[ii] Although South Australia is not alone in this regard – there are also no LGBTI vilification protections in Commonwealth law, and in Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Submission to South Australian Law Reform Institute Consultation on Removing LGBTIQ Discrimination

South Australian Law Reform Institute

c/- salri@adelaide.edu.au

Monday 6 July 2015

 

To whom it may concern,

Submission to South Australian Law Reform Institute Consultation on Removing LGBTIQ Discrimination from South Australian Laws

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission to the South Australian Law Reform Institute (SALRI) public consultation on removing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people from South Australian laws.

While I am not a resident of South Australia, I am a passionate advocate for LGBTI rights, and I provide the following comments on possible ways to improve the legal situation of LGBTI people in South Australia, especially in terms of their protections under anti-discrimination law.

Specifically, I would like to suggest three major reforms to the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (the ‘Act’), namely:

  1. Amend protected attributes to:
    1. Modernise wording around gender identity, and
    2. Genuinely include intersex status.

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 currently provides protection to lesbian, gay and bisexual people through section 29 (and subsequent provisions of the Act), because of the definition of ‘sexuality’ in section 5: “sexuality means heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.”

While the SALRI may wish to consider whether to recommend amendments to the wording of these attributes (potentially to ‘sexual orientation’, to ensure consistency with the provisions of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013), the primary concerns around protected attributes, and how they are drafted, are in respect of transgender and intersex individuals.

For example, protections for transgender people are based on the term ‘chosen gender’, which is defined under sub-section 5(5) of the Act as: “a person is a person of a chosen gender if –

  • the person identifies on a genuine basis as a member of the opposite sex by assuming characteristics of the opposite sex (whether by means of medical intervention, style of dressing or otherwise) or by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex…”

Based on my understanding of transgender activism, and through recent developments of anti-discrimination law within Australia, it is highly likely that using the term ‘chosen gender’, and then defining it in this way, is not best practice.

For example, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 protections are instead based on ‘gender identity’, which is defined in section 4 of that Act as: “gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth.”

The Commonwealth definition appears to be significantly more inclusive, especially because it does not use descriptors such as ‘opposite sex’ and therefore avoids strict gender binaries, allowing people who do not identify as either male or female to also be protected.

I suggest the SALRI consider recommending the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 be amended to incorporate the term, and definition of, ‘gender identity’ from the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

In a similar way, it is possible that the drafters of subsection 5(5) of the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 believed that they were including people with intersex variations, when they wrote: “a person is a person of a chosen gender if – …

  • the person, being of indeterminate sex, identifies on a genuine basis as a member of a particular sex by assuming characteristics of the particular sex (whether by means of medical intervention, style of dressing or otherwise) or by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the particular sex.”

However, once again based on my understanding of intersex activism, and on recent developments in anti-discrimination law (particularly at the Commonwealth level, and more recently in Tasmania), it is clear that this definition is not best practice – and is, in fact, inadequate to ensure protection for people on the basis of intersex status.

For this reason, the SALRI should consider recommending that South Australia adopt the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, which was the first anti-discrimination legislation in the world to include ‘intersex status’ as a stand-alone protected attribute.

As a result of those reforms, ‘intersex status’ is now defined in section 4 of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as: “intersex status means the status of having physical, hormonal or genetic features that are:

  • neither wholly female nor wholly male; or
  • a combination of female and male; or
  • neither female nor male.”

Adopting this definition would ensure a far larger proportion of people with intersex variations would have protection under South Australia’s anti-discrimination laws.

Obviously, as a cisgender gay man, I am not an expert on either of the grounds of gender identity or intersex status. That is why these issues have been framed as suggestions – and if this is something that the SALRI wishes to take up in more detail, it should do so in close collaboration with South Australian and/or national transgender and intersex advocacy organisations to ensure that whatever language is ultimately adopted is the best, and most inclusive, possible.

  1. Remove broad exceptions granted to religious organisations

The current exceptions which are offered to religious organisations in the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 are overly generous, and their scope should be significantly narrowed.

Section 50 of the Act provides:

Religious bodies

1. This Part does not render unlawful discrimination in relation to –

a. the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or

b. the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or

ba. the administration of a body established for religious purposes in accordance with the precepts of that religion; or

c. any other practice of a body established for religious purposes that conforms with the precepts of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

While both subsections 50(1)(a) and (b) appear to be necessary to protect the genuine exercise of freedom of religion, subsection 50(1)(ba) would only be justified on this basis if it was limited to the operation of explicitly or overtly religious bodies (like churches) and should not apply to other institutions which may be operated by religions but which have a different primary purpose (for example, schools, hospitals, aged care services or other community services).

Subsection 50(1)(c) is also completely unjustifiable given it provides what amounts to essentially a ‘blank cheque’ to organisations that are operated by religious groups to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) South Australians, both in employment and in service delivery.

There should not be a general right to discriminate against LGBT people, across multiple areas of public life like education, health, aged care or community services, simply because of the religious beliefs of certain individuals or organisations. LGBT South Australians deserve the right to access services, and to apply for or undertake employment, in the public sphere without the threat of being discriminated against solely on the basis of who they are.

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, which specifically excluded religious exceptions from applying to LGBT people accessing aged care services operated by religious organisations, has successfully demonstrated that:

  1. It is possible to restrict these religious exceptions in law, and
  2. After two years of operation, there have been no practical problems in the application of such provisions.

Even more relevantly, the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 has not granted explicit exceptions to protections on sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status to religious organisations – and this approach has also worked well over the past decade.

For example, under the Tasmanian legislation, religious organisations have traditionally only been allowed to discriminate in terms of:

  1. Employment based on religion (section 51)[1] or
  2. Participation in religious observance (section 52)[2].

I suggest that the SALRI consider the long-standing Tasmanian exceptions, which do not allow for general discrimination against LGBTI people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, but only on the grounds of religious belief or activity, as a ‘best practice’ guide to help reform the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 and therefore improve the anti-discrimination protections which are offered to LGBTI South Australians.[3]

  1. Introduce anti-vilification protections for LGBTI South Australians

The final suggestion relates to the issue of anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex vilification.

Specifically, it is to recommend the creation of anti-vilification laws, on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, which are equivalent to the race-based anti-vilification provisions of the South Australian Racial Vilification Act 1996[4].

To put it bluntly, there is no justification whatsoever to have anti-vilification laws which protect people from racist vilification, but to simultaneously not have anti-vilification laws which apply to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are just as unacceptable, and, most importantly, just as harmful, as racism – with significant impacts on the mental health of young LGBTI people in particular. If, as a community, we have (or in this case, South Australia, has) resolved to outlaw racist vilification, then similar laws should also be used to outlaw homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification.

Currently, four Australian jurisdictions (NSW, Queensland, the ACT and Tasmania) have anti-vilification laws which cover (at least some of) the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities.

However, given neither the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, nor South Australian law, have any vilification protections on these grounds, none of the LGBTI communities in South Australia have any legal protection from similar conduct.

This situation should change – and I suggest the SALRI recommend the creation of new anti-vilification laws which prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The past 18 months have seen an extensive community conversation about race-based vilification laws at the Commonwealth level, and specifically whether section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 should be repealed, amended or retained.

The outcome of this debate appears to be relatively strong community support for the retention of section 18C. As such, I believe the SALRI should take advantage of this moment to recommend that another marginalised group within Australian society should be offered the same shield against conduct which is similarly destructive.

Thank you again for the opportunity to make a submission to the South Australian Law Reform Institute (SALRI) public consultation on removing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people from South Australian laws.

I look forward to the outcome of this consultation, and to the consequent improvements to South Australia’s laws – hopefully including the reforms to the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 recommended in this submission.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[1] “Section 51: Employment based on religion.

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

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

[2] “Section 52: Participation in religious observance.

A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to –

  • the ordination or appointment of a priest; or
  • the training and education of any person seeking ordination or appointment as a priest; or
  • the selection or appointment of a person to participate in any religious observance or practice; or
  • any other act that –
    • is carried out in accordance with the doctrine of a particular religion; and
    • is necessary to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of any person of that religion.”

[3] However, I do not believe there is any reason to include the recently added, unnecessary – and unnecessarily discriminatory – provisions included in section 51A of the Tasmanian Act which state: “Section 51A. Admission of person as student based on religion.

(1) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to admission of that other person as a student to an educational institution that is or is to be conducted in accordance with the tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a person who is enrolled as a student at the educational institution referred to in that subsection.

(3) Subsection (1) does not permit discrimination on any grounds referred to in section 16 other than those specified in that subsection.

(4) A person may, on a ground specified in subsection (1), discriminate against another person in relation to the admission of the other person as a student to an educational institution, if the educational institution’s policy for the admission of students demonstrates that the criteria for admission relates to the religious belief or affiliation, or religious activity, of the other person, the other person’s parents or the other person’s grandparents.”

[4] Section 4 of the SA Racial Vilification Act provides: “Racial vilification. A person must not, by a public act, incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or group of persons on the ground of their race by –

  • threatening physical harm to the person, or members of the group, or to property of the person or members of the group; or
  • inciting others to threaten physical harm to the person, or members of the group, or to property of the person or members of the group.

Maximum penalty:

If the offender is a body corporate – $25 000.

If the offender is a natural person – $5 000, or imprisonment for 3 years, or both.”