Equality Australia calls on PM to break stalemate on religious discrimination reforms

4 July 2024 – Equality Australia is calling on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to urgently introduce legislation that protects students and staff in religious schools. 

“Labor committed to these reforms before coming to power but discrimination against students and staff is still happening around the country because of gaps in our laws that allow religious schools to play by their own rules,” said Equality Australia CEO Anna Brown

“These schools rely on millions of dollars of taxpayer funding every year and it’s not too much to ask that they uphold the same non-discriminatory practices that other government schools and institutions have abided by for decades.” 

Section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) currently allows religious educational institutions to discriminate against staff and students based on their gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy and marital status.

Religious educational institutions can: 

  • fire or refuse to hire staff, and 
  • suspend, expel, refuse to enrol, or disadvantage a student, simply because they are gay, trans, pregnant, divorced or unmarried. 

Equality Australia, the Independent Education Union and the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) have each documented stories of discrimination, including: 

  • teachers who have been dismissed or refused employment for being gay, marrying a divorcee or becoming pregnant out of wedlock or with the assistance of IVF; 
  • students who have been forced out of school or denied leadership positions based on their sexuality and sex;  
  • parents who have been denied enrolment for their children because they are trans or because the parents are in a same-sex relationship. 

In the lead up to the federal election, the Albanese Government committed to reforming anti-discrimination laws so that religious schools could no longer discriminate against students and staff. 

A commitment was also made that schools could continue to preference, in good faith, people of the same religion when selecting staff.  

“It’s time for Prime Minister Albanese to introduce the laws he promised at the last election and let the parliament do its job,” Ms Brown said. 

“There is support for these reforms from across the parliament. Only two years ago five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to vote with Labor and the crossbench to support changes to the Sex Discrimination Act and protect trans students.” 

Ms Brown said it was expected that the draft Bill would protect LGBTIQ+ students and teachers in religious schools and offer protections to women and people of faith, ensuring a teacher could not lose her job for falling pregnant outside of marriage or that a Catholic gardener could not be fired from an evangelical school. 

“Our laws should be consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations and reflect who we are as a nation in the 21st century,” Ms Brown said. 

She cautioned the government against watering down any protections for teachers in religious schools, with almost two in five staff employed in private schools, most of which are religiously affiliated. 

“Schools have no business encroaching into the personal lives of teachers when it has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in the classroom,” she said.  

Ms Brown said a recent report by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) found there was strong public support, including among parents and people of faith, for removing special exceptions allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people and others. 

It also found that the religious ethos of a school could be maintained without exemptions. 

“Religious schools should not have to harm children or punish teachers to uphold their faith. There are wonderful caring teachers around this country who are gay and also of faith and they should not live in fear of losing their jobs because of who they go home to at the end of their working day,” Ms Brown said. 

Media contact: Tara Ravens, tara.ravens@equalityaustralia.org.au, 0408 898 154