Mr Andrew Barr
ACT Chief Minister
CC: Mr Gordon Ramsay
9 September 2020
Dear Chief Minister
Reforming ‘religious exceptions’ in the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT)
I am writing to you about the religious exceptions contained in the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT), and specifically the special privileges they provide to religious organisations to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity (among other attributes).
First, I would like to congratulate you, and your Government, on the passage of the Discrimination Amendment Act 2018, which removed the ability of religious schools in the ACT to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff members.
That reform was an essential step forward on the long path towards LGBT equality. As well as providing security to LGBT employees, it will benefit generations of young people who will be able to access education without fear of discrimination on the basis of who they are.
However, I would also take this opportunity to remind you this important reform remains incomplete – because it has not been extended to religious organisations outside education, including other vital health, community and social services.
When you announced these changes in October 2018, it was reported that:
Mr Barr said he was personally disappointed discrimination was “arguably still possible” under the territory’s current laws. The Government will also undertake an “extensive audit” of all territory laws and close any further gaps and loopholes found.
You reiterated this commitment in your speech on the Bill during debate in the ACT Legislative Assembly in November of that year:
We are also committed to undertaking a full audit of ACT laws to assist us to eliminate any further areas of discrimination against LGBTIQ Canberrans in the territory’s statute books and to develop a reform package to address any matters identified. As a human rights jurisdiction, we have to ensure that the human rights of everyone in our community are reflected not just in law but in the day-to-day practice in our lives.
I would argue that laws that allow religious health, community and social services to discriminate against LGBT employees and people accessing those services are impediments that should be removed to improve the day-to-day lives of LGBT Canberrans.
During that same speech, you defended the proposed changes on the basis that they were based on the existing protections in Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998:
However, in moving quickly we have chosen to follow a safe and tested path, as the limited exception we have adopted in this bill is modelled on the law that has been in existence for many years in Tasmania.
And it is true that the new ACT framework which applies to discrimination by religious schools is the same as the framework which has existed in Tasmania for more than two decades.
However, the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 protections are not limited to religious schools, but instead protect LGBT employees and people accessing services against discrimination by religious organisations across all areas of public life.
I would argue that, if the ACT wants to base its Discrimination Act on the nation’s best practice laws, then it should replicate the removal of religious exceptions in scope as well.
Finally, in your speech to the ACT Legislative Assembly in November 2018 you expressed the following views:
Let us be clear: the existence of these broad-based exceptions in law should no longer be there. There should not be those exceptions anymore. That is what this legislation is about. A broad-based exception in law designed to protect people from discrimination has to be consistent with the values of equality and social inclusion that we hold dear in this territory. That is why we are moving on this issue. It is because it is unacceptable that personal attributes like whether you are pregnant, your race, your relationship status, your gender identity or your sexuality should be a reason for you to be kicked out of school or no longer able to teach in an educational institution.
These are indeed fine sentiments. But they reinforce the fact the job is half-finished. The ‘existence of broad-based exceptions in law’ – outside of education – continues in section 32 of the Discrimination Act 1991.
It is just as ‘unacceptable that personal attributes like whether you are pregnant, your race, your relationship status, your gender identity or your sexuality should be a reason for you to be kicked out of’ any other health, community or social service, or ‘no longer able to’ work in these same organisations.
With the ACT Assembly election to be held on 17 October 2020, I am seeking your commitment that, if re-elected, you and your Government will finish the job, by reforming section 32 of the Discrimination Act 1991 so that it only allows discrimination on the attribute of religious conviction, and not in relation to other attributes including sexuality or gender identity.
In doing so, you would not only be fulfilling your own commitments from October and November 2018, but you would be improving the day-to-day lives of many LGBT Canberrans.
Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information to respond to this request. Please also be advised that any response received will be published at www.alastairlawrie.net