Despite repeated assurances earlier this week that a controversial law would safeguard gay teachers and students, the government has wavered.
Despite assurances from the government that the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill won’t allow schools to expel gay students and fire gay teachers, the Deputy Attorney-General has wavered.
Senator Amanda Stoker said religious institutions could have power to refuse employment to a gay person if it was against that institution’s public, recorded views.
Scott Morrison will personally introduce the Bill to the House of Representatives on Thursday and is expected to make reference to the concerns of many faith-based institutions worried about the lack of religious protection in an era of cancel culture.
Many moderate Liberal MPs have voiced their concerns about elements of the Bill, especially about what it could mean for gay students and teachers in religious schools amid fears the statement of belief clause could override anti-discrimination laws.
The government has offered assurances that those students and teachers would be protected from expulsion and firing, but there are calls for stronger protections.
But Senator Stoker told RN on Thursday morning that under the Bill, schools needed to have a “mission” that made their beliefs clear, and whether the school went so far as to stipulate that they would not hire a gay teacher “depends a great deal upon what that school is prepared to be upfront with the community about”.
“I suggest that there would be very few schools want to be in a position where they’ve got to say to the community that this is what we believe, and we’re not going to hire people unless they subscribe to a version of beliefs that is very, very strict on that front,” she said.
Senator Stoker was asked to clarify whether or not it would be illegal for a school to state they didn’t accept homosexuality and therefore would not hire homosexual staff.
“I think as a matter of principle, it should be the case that a school, who can show that they have a belief set that is justified from the core of their religious beliefs, that they are prepared to make public and claim, and that they are prepared to be upfront about with people who apply to work in a place should be able to require that people act consistently with it,” Senator Stoker said.
“Now, for many people, they’ll look at that and go – well, you know, that’s pretty intense, that may not be somewhere that I want to work.
“Other people will say, that’s the way I think and that’s the way I want to believe.
“If we look at the big picture here, what these schools do is provide education in an environment, a school culture that is shaped by the way that religious belief is implemented across that community.
“And, if you take away the ability of a school to be able to deliver a community that’s based on that, then you might as well have public schools across the board.”
The Bill has attracted criticism from leading LGBTIQ+ activist group Equality Australia, which says it’s a “step backwards” and is “winding back the hard-fought rights of women, people with disability, LGBTIQ+ people and even people of faith”.
“The damaging ‘statement of belief’ provision … would override existing state and territory anti-discrimination protections,” the group said in a statement.
“These provisions undermine everyone’s right to respect and dignity at work, school, and whenever they access goods and services like healthcare.
“ … We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to send the Bill to an inquiry, and urge the government to establish a select committee to allow the participation of both houses to ensure the members hear from those that will be impacted by the Bill.”
Labor has yet to state a position on the Bill, having only seen it on Tuesday afternoon, and have said they will go through it in detail.
The Bill will be put to a vote next week and if it passes will be sent to a senate committee. The committee would conduct a review into the Bill and report back in early 2022 with recommendations, with the option of a debate in the upper house a possibility shortly thereafter.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has said the government is prepared to consider any recommendations made through the senate process but believes the Bill strikes a good balance between religious discrimination and protecting human rights.
She has also rejected claims from equality advocates that the new laws could be used to overturn state bans on gay conversion practices.