Attorney general defends religious schools’ right to sack teachers for views on sexuality | Michaelia Cash

Michaelia Cash’s department has defended religious schools’ right to sack teachers for their views on sexuality and appeared to confirm safeguards for gay students will be delayed until after the religious discrimination bill.

The attorney general’s department’s submission to two inquiries states that changes to the Sex Discrimination Act will wait for a further review 12 months after the bill passes, despite a purported deal with four Liberal MPs to prevent expulsion of gay students at the same time, in exchange for their support of the religious discrimination bill.

Cash also personally walked back her reported commitment in December after a backlash from religious groups including the Australian Christian Lobby and Christian Schools Australia which threatened to scupper their support for the bill over the deal.

Liberal MPs Katie Allen, Dave Sharma, Angie Bell and Fiona Martin claimed they had won Cash’s agreement to remove section 38(3) from the Sex Discrimination Act, which allows schools to discriminate on sexuality and gender grounds.

The department’s submission reiterates that “the religious discrimination bill does not affect the operation of the Sex Discrimination Act”.

“In particular, the existing exemptions for religious educational institutions provided in section 38 of that Act are not affected.”

The department said religious exemptions will be considered by the Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry, to report back 12 months after the bill passes.

The department noted although the bill does not affect schools ability to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation it “would allow a religious school to consider a person’s religious beliefs about issues such as sexuality” where it is part of the beliefs of the school.

In its submission, the Sydney Anglican church defended itself against the widely reported claims that teacher Stephanie Lentz had been sacked being gay.

The submission, by the Reverend Dr Michael Stead, noted that in Lentz’s own words she was “fired … because of [her] belief that a person can be a Christian and be gay”.

Lentz was sacked by a Christian school last year after coming out as gay in 2020. Her dismissal was legal under current exemptions to anti-discrimination laws for religious institutions.

Stead argued Lentz was sacked because she was unable to sign the schools statement of belief, as a “celibate gay Christian” might be able to.

“Correctly understood, the teacher’s sexuality is not the key issue in this case.

“A heterosexual teacher who held the same theological views on sexuality and relationships, and therefore was unable to sign the statement of belief, would also have had his or her employment terminated.”

Public Interest Advocacy Centre policy manager, Alastair Lawrie, said the submission demonstrated how religious groups “plan to discriminate against LGBT people, but call it something else”.

The Sydney Anglican submission also defended the bill’s controversial statement of belief clause, arguing people should be able to express genuinely held religious beliefs, even if offensive to others including those in the congregation.

Examples it cited included: “menstruating women are unclean”, “homosexuality is a sin”, “disability is caused by the devil”, “every child should have a mother and a father who are married”, “god made only men and women” and “HIV is a punishment from God”.

Despite support from the Sydney Anglicans and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the bill faces oppositions from state governments – including Liberal governments in Tasmania and New South Wales – over provisions that override state law on hiring practices, and statements of belief.

The Victorian government has complained the bill overrides reforms it passed in December, limiting schools’ ability to discriminate against staff to positions where religious belief is an inherent requirement.

The Australian Council of Human Rights Authorities, consisting of the commissions that administer discrimination law in every state and territory, warned the bill undermines governments at that level’s ability “to craft anti-discrimination laws and balance rights in a manner appropriate to their jurisdictions”.

“It would undermine efforts made at the state and territory level to narrow exceptions that allow religious bodies to discriminate against LGBTIQ people and women in employment.”

With a group of three Liberal moderates withholding their support from the bill and the status of the deal with the other four unclear, Labor support will probably be needed to pass the bill before the 2022 election.

Labor has reserved its position until the completion of two parliamentary inquiries, both due to report by 4 February.

Labor’s shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has said that people should be protected against discrimination on the ground of religion but “any extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework should not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination”.

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