Australian students support expression of sexuality at school, study shows

The students surveyed were aged between 13 and 18. Source: Getty

As politicians debate religious freedoms, a study has shifted the focus to one of the groups that could be most affected – students.

Early findings released from a study looking at the views of high school students on religion and sexuality in schools found the majority did not support religious exemptions.

More than 1200 Australian teenagers were interviewed over a period of three months in 2017 in the lead-up and after the $122 million postal plebiscite on legalising same-sex marriage.

Eight-four per cent of the 1200-plus participants believed students should be allowed to openly express their sexual or gender identity.

Government's religious freedom review leaked sparks a fiery debate.
Government's religious freedom review leaked sparks a fiery debate.

Eighty per cent thought sex education should include information relevant for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) people. While eighty-three per cent of Catholic teenagers supported same-sex marriage.

Early this year 30 of the survey participants were interviewed for a more in-depth analysis.

Absolute disbelief from young people on religious exemptions

Sociology Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen at the Australian National University said the majority rejected religious exemptions and supported the inclusion of sexual and gender diversity at schools.

"They see themselves defined by an acceptance of LGBTIQ issues on inclusion and diversity," she said.

"They made it very clear that when religious exemptions were infringing on inclusion of LGBTIQ, they wanted to prioritise the inclusion of LGBTIQ young people."

She said most students expressed shock and surprise that religious exemptions existed in state and federal laws allowing religious schools to expel students and fire staff based on their gender or sexual identity.

"I think there has been a massive sea change in the way people think about religious exemptions," she said of 17 years researching in the field.

Supporters of marriage equality are seen at the Post Your Yes Vote Street Party at Taylor Square in Darlinghurst, Sydney on October 8.
Supporters of marriage equality are seen at the Post Your Yes Vote Street Party at Taylor Square in Darlinghurst, Sydney on October 8.

"I thought the status quo - there is a lot of consensus across generations. But with the young generation people, I see absolute disbelief that these exemptions could exist.

"And I think that is not just among the younger generation now, but it is more broadly in Australia - post-marriage equality and post the royal commission into child sexual abuse."

Diverse perspectives

Professor Rasmussen said the students surveyed showed a diversity of perspectives. 

"They were much more diverse in their perspectives, not holding firm lines in regards to how their different beliefs should line up," she said.

"So a position on LGBTIQ inclusion did not necessarily mean a rejection of religion either."

Survey participant Jennifer, who identified as spiritual but not religious, said anti-discrimination laws made no exceptions for age or race, and there should no exemptions for religious schools.

"Not hiring someone because of the way they are or, like, their religious beliefs or stuff like that I don’t think that’s something that should be allowed," she told interviewers.

Why are today's younger generation not as religious as their parents?
Why are today's younger generation not as religious as their parents?

"You’re not allowed to discriminate against people’s age or race or anything so I don’t think it should be any different with religion or sexuality."

Taylor, identifying as a seeker, said firing a teacher based on their homosexuality is wrong.

"People can still have religious freedom," he said.

"You can still believe being gay is wrong, but you shouldn’t be able to fire someone only on the basis that they are gay."

However, not all survey participants opposed religious exemptions.

Gemma, who attended a Catholic school where a teacher was fired after revealing their homosexuality, said she personally supported LGBTIQ issues being taught at schools but could understand the importance of consistency in religious teachings at Catholic schools.

'Young people leading the national conversation'

Professor Rasmussen said it is important that the voices of students, who experience the issues first-hand, are heard as part of debates on religious freedoms.

"I think young people are really leading the national conversation and that is why it is so important to listen to them," she said.

"They're the ones in schools, they're the ones that have to turn up each day. And they're ones telling us really loudly that they do not want this regardless of what their worldviews are.

How religious is Australia?
How religious is Australia?

"So I think it is really important that we listen to them now. And that we don't dictate to them, but learn from them in trying to think about what sort of approach we should take in the future."

Madison, a committed Christian, observed generational differences in views on sexual diversity.

"I think that it’s hard to put, sort of, an umbrella over a whole group of Christians, but I would say that for most of the religions these days they’re all run by older generations, baby boomers, those sorts of people, and in general that generation is much more intolerant of, sort of, sexual diversity than our generation," she said in the survey.

"I think that as, sort of, our generation, sort of, shifts over to be the ones in charge, the perspective will change but obviously in any extreme religions they’re always going to believe what they’ve believed from the very start."

The national survey was carried out by researchers from the Australian National University (ANU), Deakin University and Monash University, and was supported by $300,000 in funding from the Australian Research Council.

The full findings are expected to be released at the end of the year.

In last year's same-sex marriage plebiscite, 61.6 per cent of Australians supported the Yes vote, leading to Australia becoming the 25th country to legalise same-sex marriage on December 7, 2017.

Politicians debate religious exemptions

The report's release comes as the findings of religious freedom review conducted by former attorney-general Philip Ruddock were leaked by Fairfax Media.

The report was handed to the government in May, and Scott Morrison had resisted calls for it to be released ahead of the Wentworth by-election on 20 October.

More than 15,500 submissions were received by the Commission which was announced in November by the Turnbull government to allay concerns about religious freedoms during the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite debate.

Philip Ruddock.
Philip Ruddock.

The review, according to the leaked recommendations, suggests amending the federal Sex Discrimination Act to entrench the right for religious schools to discriminate on the grounds of sex or gender as long as safeguards are followed.

The safeguards include that the discrimination is based on religious precepts, that the policy is published and advertised, and that the primary consideration is on the best interests of the child.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he personally does not believe gay students should be expelled, but said he supports the Ruddock review for striking the right balance between religious freedom and the rights of individuals to not be discriminated against.

A Religious Discrimination Act is also being proposed in the Ruddock review.

Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten said Labor would support the federal government in efforts to repeal discrimination law exemptions for religious schools.

The Greens party said it is putting forward its own bill to repeal the religious exemptions.

At a state and territory level, protection of religious beliefs exists in almost every jurisdiction, except New South Wales and South Australia.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch