22 June 2023 – Equality Australia has welcomed a United Nations report that specifically calls out religious exemptions in laws across Australia which allow discrimination against LGBT people in religious schools and by faith-based service providers.
The report, by UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, cites cases in Australia where teachers have been fired by religious schools because of their sexual orientation.
It also points to government-funded faith-based service providers, such as foster care and adoption agencies in Australia, that can lawfully reject people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The UN report recommends that any laws relating to religious exemptions must adhere to international human rights standards and not prevent LGBT people from accessing education, employment or other services.
Under Australia’s federal law, religious schools and other faith-based organisations have exemptions which allow them to discriminate against students, staff and people who rely on their services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes. Several states and territories have similar legal loopholes.
Equality Australia Legal Director Ghassan Kassisieh said protections were urgently needed across Australia for LGBTIQ+ people in employment, education and service delivery.
“These discriminatory practices are not theoretical or academic. One in three students and almost two in five school employees are employed in non-government schools, most of which are religiously affiliated,” he said.
“Two out of the four adoption providers in NSW explicitly state on their website that you are unable to adopt a child if you are a same-sex couple, thanks to gaps in our legal protections.”
Following a commitment from the federal government to protect LGBTIQ+ students and staff from discrimination in religious schools, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) will hand down its recommendations for reform later this year. However, these commitments will not address the broader gaps in Australian laws which apply to faith-based service providers beyond educational institutions.
Mr Kassisieh said it was time for Australian law to reflect community expectations and protect all of us, equally.
“Students should be able to go to school and be supported to learn and grow as who they are, and teachers should not fear losing their jobs because their sexuality or gender, or because they support a student who is gay or trans,” he said.
“When it comes to services, LGBTIQ+ people should always be able to access what they need, whether that be healthcare, child welfare, adoption services or disability support, no matter who is providing the service. Our laws should protect all of us, equally.”
Equality Australia identified a number of individuals in its submission to the ALRC who have been directly impacted by the lack of legal protections in religious educational settings. Some of them include:
- Steph Lentz was fired from her role as an English teacher at a Christian school in Sydney in 2021 after she came out as a lesbian. The school fired Steph because the church she attended was affirming of LGBTIQ+ people.
- Karen Pack is a committed Christian and an ordained pastor. In 2020, she was fired from her role as a teacher at a Baptist tertiary college in Sydney after she became engaged to her same-sex partner. Karen was employed by the college in February 2018 and lectured in chaplaincy and spiritual care, a post-graduate program she had been engaged by the college to develop.
- Nathan Zamprogno is a gay man who lost his job as a teacher at a Christian School in Sydney in 2020 after 20 years’ service because the school discovered his sexuality.
- Evie MacDonald is a trans girl who attended a religious school in the Mornington Peninsula between 2011 and 2015. In 2015, when Evie was 10 years old, a teacher divided the class into boys and girls. When Evie said she wanted to be with the girls the teacher physically dragged her to the group of boys. She was also forced to attend seven sessions of chaplaincy counselling intended to prevent her affirming her gender as a girl, without her parents’ knowledge.
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