Last week Ireland passed a Bill to prevent Catholic schools from discriminating against LGBT teachers. Would similar moves work in Australia?
Mary Lou Rasmussen

8 Dec 2015 - 12:45 PM  UPDATED 9 Dec 2015 - 3:11 PM

Religious exemptions vary across Australian states. In some states these exemptions mean that religious schools can sack teachers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) or who are divorced, or have children outside of marriage.

A recent University of Western Sydney study identified some of the challenges that religious exemptions pose for teachers, based on research with 14 self-identified lesbian and gay teachers working at an array of schools in metropolitan Sydney.

The participants in this study reported systemic discrimination within religious schools that had the effect of “reducing professional opportunities and job security” and on this basis they argue “the legal exemptions for religious organisations from the Anti-discrimination Act must be overturned to ensure equitable and socially just work environments for lesbian and gay teachers”.

Research suggests most people are unaware that these exemptions exist, and that an overwhelming majority would support more transparency regarding how these exemptions are practiced

The study’s authors also observed that not all religious schools are characterised by discrimination. While religious schools are not uniformly places where LGBT teachers may experience discrimination, the research suggests religious exemptions are perceived as providing the basis for overt and covert discrimination against teachers who identify publically as lesbian and gay.

Nearly all jurisdictions allow religious schools to discriminate under certain circumstances on the basis of religion and gender. Most people are unaware that these exemptions exist, and an overwhelming majority would support more transparency regarding how these exemptions are practiced.

What interests me in these debates is how people weigh up contests between religious freedom and sexual freedom. What do people perceive as too much regulation, and what do they perceive as not enough?

Sexual progressivism manifests in debates about marriage equality and religious exemptions. The progressive narrative means that if Ireland and Canada have abolished exemptions and embraced marriage equality, then Australia needs to, too because if we are not like them, then we – Australians – are not sexually progressive. But labeling something as sexually progressive suggests that certain understandings of sexuality are left behind; what is being jettisoned is not always clear.

In Ireland, more than 90 per cent of primary schools and almost 50 per cent of second-level schools are within the Catholic system.

In the Canadian context there are ongoing debates about government funding for religious education. In Canada sexual freedom has tended to trump arguments related to religious freedom in public schools. In Ireland, there is a similar shift going on. This week the Dáil (the Irish Parliament) has passed a Bill which means people who identify as LGBTI, divorcees and single parents can no longer be discriminated against whilst working in places such as schools or hospitals that are governed by the Catholic Church. This is especially significant in the Irish context where public education is still very much dominated by the Catholic Church in Ireland. More than 90 per cent of primary schools and almost 50 per cent of second-level schools are within the Catholic system.

In comparing places like Australia, Ireland and Canada, it is worth remembering that school systems in these places are not the same. Catholic schools completely dominate the landscape in Ireland.  In Ontario, Canada the only type of religious schools funded by the state are Catholic and about a third of students are enrolled in state-funded Roman Catholic schools, while two thirds are enrolled in state funded Public schools.

In Australia there is more diversity in the school sector – this is in part related to support for school choice amongst successive governments (Labor and Liberal). So in Victoria, 63 per cent of students are enrolled in government schools, 23 per cent are enrolled in Catholic schools and 14 per cent are enrolled in independent schools.

I believe these systemic differences are significant in thinking about religious exemptions, sexual freedom and religious freedom. In a country like Australia many parents choose to send their children to private schools, and these private schools – including the religious ones – have very diverse ethos. Teachers also have significant amounts of choice regarding where they will teach. Consequently, should we think about religious exemptions in the same way as they do in Ireland and Canada where parents and teachers have less choice? 

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In Taking God to School: The end of Australia’s egalitarian education, Marion Maddox argues that religious schools’ approach to discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender is something of a mixed bag:

Several elite religious schools, including Methodist Ladies College and King David School, belong to the Victorian Government’s (now Federal Government) Safe Schools Coalition of gay friendly schools. Nor are all the new, low fee, ‘Christian schools’ so restrictive. Some schools, though not formally renouncing the right to discriminate, choose not to exercise it…Self restraint, whether on the part of a teacher to be discreet or an employer in ‘turning a blind eye’, can be precarious, and the lack of formal protection imposes additional burdens on affected employees.

Maddox goes on to cite Dutch political philosopher Veit Bader’s observation that Australia is:

… a textbook shining example of an unregulated approach to church and state. He thinks that’s the best thing because that makes the most room for a democracy. When you start regulating too hard, you end up… suddenly you’re an America… or you’re a France – religion is suddenly becoming a basis of exclusion.

In Discrimination by Religious Schools: Views from the Coal Face, Evans and Gaze refuse the temptation to give priority to religious freedom or sexual freedom, but rather argue the importance of “balancing these competing claims”. Such an approach reflects an understanding of how debates about religious exemptions might work towards the privatisation of belief, and is recognition that maneuvers to curtail religious freedom might become a potential rallying point for those who support such exemptions and seek out schools on the basis of these exemptions.

Mary Lou Rasmussen is an associate professor at the Faculty of Education, Monash University.