Opinion: Morrison’s proposed amendments do next-to-nothing to protect LGBT students

Almost three and a half years since they were first promised, today Prime Minister Morrison might finally introduce amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to protect students in religious schools against discrimination.

While this might seem like progress, media reports suggest the changes are far short of a genuine attempt to prohibit discrimination against LGBT kids on the basis of who they are.

There are three reasons why the reported amendments fail to protect the rights of LGBT kids.

First, they abandon trans and gender diverse kids altogether. Religious schools will be able to discriminate against them throughout their education with punishment, exclusion, suspension and even expulsion.

This is simply unacceptable. There can be no justification, legally or morally, for allowing discrimination against trans and gender diverse students to continue. Not for a single day longer, when protection is already decades overdue.

Protecting the vulnerable against discrimination is the raison d’etre for anti-discrimination laws. Amendments that single out one of the most vulnerable groups of all for ongoing mistreatment is a perversion of that principle.

Protecting trans and gender diverse kids in religious schools is neither complex, nor unprecedented. Anti-discrimination laws in Tasmania and Queensland have done so, for decades, while the ACT has done the same since 2019. Religious schools continue to operate effectively in all three places.

Second, we understand the amendments will only prohibit expulsion.

This will still leave religious schools free to discriminate against lesbian, gay and bisexual students in countless other, equally-damaging ways.

This includes being able to impose punishments that fall short of expulsion – for example, by excluding students from particular activities, banning them from talking about their relationships (where mixed-gender relationships are allowed), or stopping them from disclosing their identity.

Religious schools will continue to be free to tell lesbian, gay and bisexual students they are ‘intrinsically disordered’, and must pray for forgiveness for something over which they have no choice nor control.

As a gay man who barely survived five years at a deeply-homophobic religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s, I am speaking from experience.

My school didn’t expel me, but they did nearly break my spirit. I lived with the scars of that awful period for many years. Until I finally realised I wasn’t broken. And that those who need to change are the ones responsible for looking after children, but who instead discriminate against them and cause them deep harm.

My experience also informs my view that even the narrow ban on expulsion won’t work. Because schools seeking to discriminate against LGB kids will simply summon parents to ‘ask them to remove their children’. Nearly all parents will agree, especially knowing the school would be legally permitted to mistreat their kids for as long as they remain.

The third reason these proposed changes are unacceptable is that they won’t close other loopholes to allow discrimination ‘under the guide of religious views’ (to use the words of the Attorney-General’s office).

The biggest loophole is contained in the Religious Discrimination Bill itself, because it allows religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief throughout their education.

This opens the door to punishing or expelling LGBT students if they refuse to affirm statements that reject their humanity, such as ‘homosexuality is intrinsically disordered’ or ‘God only created man and woman, therefore transgender people don’t exist’. It is now clear that the Religious Discrimination Bill would allow schools to discriminate against students who won’t agree.

We saw Citipointe Christian College attempt this with its now-abandoned enrolment contract – discriminating against trans students because of their beliefs about gender identity, not their identity directly.

That Citipointe failed in its attempt can be partly credited to the best practice approach that Queensland – as well as Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory – takes to protecting the rights of students in religious schools.

These jurisdictions allow discrimination on belief at enrolment only: an approach that protects the religious freedom of children and young people to develop and explore their own faith. This approach has, for many years, successfully balanced the interests of religious schools with the rights and welfare of children.

So we know what needs to be done under Commonwealth law: protecting all LGBT students, from all forms of discrimination not just expulsion, and without creating alternative avenues to discriminate against them via the Religious Discrimination Bill. And we must demand nothing less.

Alastair Lawrie is the Policy Manager at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

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