Australia

'Appalling': Leaked religious freedom review sparks debate over gay students

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A leaked recommendation from the religious freedom review has sparked a debate about whether to enshrine powers for schools to reject students based on their sexuality.

Leaked recommendations from the government's religious freedom review have sparked a fiery debate between faith-based schools and LGBTIQ+ groups. 

The debate centred on whether religious schools should be able to discriminate against students and staff on the basis of their sexuality.

The leak to Fairfax from a review of religious freedom led by Howard-government minister Philip Ruddock, recommended enshrining into federal law, the right of schools to "select, or preference, students who uphold the religious convictions of that school community."

The review has not been publicly released despite being handed to then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull four months ago. His successor, Scott Morrison, has promised a response before the next election.

Since then, LGBTIQ+ advocates, including Ivan Hinton-Teoh from just.equal, have been bracing for a fresh fight.

Mr Hinton-Teoh criticised the leaked proposal to enshrine the school powers into federal law. 

"We knew that the outcome of achieving of marriage equality wasn't going to mean that opponents disappeared, they would find a new mechanism to subject LGBTI Australians to prejudice and discrimination," he told SBS News.  

"We already know that LGBTI people are experiencing enormous amounts of stress in coming to terms with their sexuality, usually in secret and without the support of their family. The idea that we're going to enshrine taxpayer-funded schools to be able to turn those people away is appalling." 

Ivan Hinton-Teoh, founder of just.equal
Ivan Hinton-Teoh, founder of just.equal
SBS News

Mr Morrison appeared reluctant to engage in the debate on Wednesday, dismissing the leaked revelations. 

"Well it's the existing law and we're not proposing to change that law to take away that existing arrangement that exists," he said. 

Attorney-General Christian Porter later clarified that no changes to the current arrangement, created by Labor in 2013, are proposed in the report.

"The Ruddock report does not recommend any changes to this regime," Mr Porter said.

Speaking to ABC Radio National, Mr Ruddock denied the claims of any expansion to the law. 

“We weren’t suggesting that the law should be expanded, we were simply saying that it should, in fact, be contracted so that that information was clear and unambiguous in relation to people who were seeking to enrol children”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media in Sydney.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (AAP)
AAP

More details leaked to The Australian suggested that the Ruddock review didn't support overriding states where laws prevented schools from discriminating on the basis of sexuality. 

That's likely to leave both sides unsatisfied. 

NSW MP Alex Greenwich, who co-chaired the 'Yes' campaign during the same-sex marriage debate, said there was no reason why gay and lesbian students couldn't go to religious schools. 

"Across Australia, there are many LGBTI people of faith, in schools and in communities everywhere, people value them and respect them, we should not be creating an environment where people are treated poorly because of their sexuality," he said. 

"It's time we moved on from the confected clash of gay versus God. Bring Australians together with our shared values of fairness and equality."

But Christian schools want a consistent approach across all states that ensure that schools can turn away students and staff who don't uphold their beliefs. 

NSW MP Alex Greenwich.
NSW MP Alex Greenwich.
AAP

Christian Schools Australia national policy officer Mark Spencer said that didn't necessarily mean that all gay and lesbian students would be barred.

"What might be an issue if a child started for whatever reason started undermining the school, accusing the school of being bigots, telling them they really didn't agree with what the school is teaching, not in a respectful way of academic discussion, in a way that really sought to undermine what the school was about," he said.

It's a debate heading for a political dead-end. 

Labor won't support changes to give schools more power to discriminate and there wasn't enough support on the crossbench to pass the Senate.

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