Pre-empting the release of the Ruddock Panel Report on Religious Freedom, the Greens recently introduced a Bill to the Senate. It seeks to amend the Sex Discrimination Act and risks the freedom of religious Australians.

The leaked recommendations of the Ruddock Report would continue the current exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act that allow religious schools to require staff and students to publicly uphold the teaching, ethos and behaviours of the religion (or at least not publicly contradict them) on matters of sexual orientation, relationship status and gender identity.

However, the Greens’ Discrimination Free Schools Bill constrains religious freedom by removing exemptions that extend well beyond religious schools. It affects the practices of any religious body—whether explicitly educational or not—if the practice is connected with the provision by the body of any type of education or training. This would include instruction for ordinary members of the religion, be they in the local church, mosque or synagogue.

It could even apply to sermons if they are understood as “an act or practice connected with the provision of education or training by the religious body” under the proposed amendment to s.37 of the Sex Discrimination Act, and s. 12 of the Fair Work Act.

In effect, the Bill may empower staff and students who disagree with their religious institution’s values on these issues to publicly speak and act against those values by allowing discrimination lawsuits. For example, the Bill could use the threat of discrimination lawsuits against institutions if they require a teacher or student to stop promoting material or conduct contrary to the ethos of the institution.

According to the Bill, any training and education provided by a religious body cannot be seen to discriminate against people on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. Nor can it discriminate in relation to employing people who provide that training.

Beyond schools, the Bill removes exemptions for education by theological colleges. It also applies to any education provided by a religious institution. For example, the training services provided for youth workers, chaplains, missionaries, or instructors in theological education. The only training left untouched by the Bill is for candidates seeking to become clergy in the faith, such as imams, rabbis, or priests.

Several religions consider that persons in same-sex relationships are not conforming to the beliefs and practices of the religion and therefore would not make suitable youth workers, chaplains, missionaries, or instructors in theological education for that religion.

However, under the Bill, refusal to admit persons in same-sex relationships into any of these forms of training would be unlawful discrimination. This is a deep and unjustified interference with the freedom of religions to select, train and appoint persons who will represent the religion to the world. Under the amendment, then, religious bodies would either have to go against their beliefs, or not provide the education or training. It is an attempt to compel uniformity and presents a risk to religious bodies and adherents.

In addition to training for specific roles, general religious education could also be affected. For example, the training of regular adherents of the faith, including members receiving instruction in the fundamentals of their religion and its implication for areas including family life, relationships, marriage, wealth, and so on.

The Greens have not explained to religious bodies that under this Bill, even the training of local lay people about the basics of the religion can’t discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or relationship status in relation to:

  • who can attend the training;
  • the manner in which the religious body provides the training to people (for example the training may be based on the religion’s belief that God has ordained male-female marriage and that sexual relations should be limited to such marriages);
  • the terms and conditions on which the training is provided;
  • who they employ to provide the training

The implications of the Discrimination Free Schools Bill are widespread. If passed, it would constrain the ability of many religious Australians to live out their lives in accordance with their faith. Reaching far beyond religious schools, the Greens’ Bill would impinge on religious freedom since education and training are integral components of many faiths. It would touch on areas including congregational services that include sermons, day-schools for children and new converts, and even the training of youth and community workers.

In the ACT, the Labor and Greens coalition government  have also proposed a Bill to remove the freedom of religious schools to require staff and students to comply with standards of behaviour and expression that conform to the values of the religion. While not as far reaching as the federal Greens Bill, the ACT Labor-Greens” Bill will make it very difficult for religious schools to stop active dissent and undermining of religious values in the school without risking an anti-discrimination lawsuit.

Australians disagree on the morality or wisdom of different sexual practices and family structures. But a person with one view should not be able to use the threat  of discrimination law to keep others from expressing their different views. Australians of any faith or none must be allowed to make their choices and live their lives in accordance with their beliefs and values, inside or outside religious contexts, without  the threat of lawsuits to force them to adopt a particular, favoured set of beliefs and values.