Lawmakers in one Australian state are attempting to close a loophole in the law that allows private religious schools to expel LGBT pupils. And, of course, religious groups see this as an attack on their rights.
Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich, himself openly gay, is set to introduce a private member’s bill to the state’s parliament that would abolish exceptions for private religious schools that were carved out in the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act.
In a statement to Gay Star News, Greenwich made quite a compelling case for this change:
Currently in NSW students can cruelly be expelled for being gay. This is wrong and my bill will end this. The threat of expulsion for being who you are has a hugely negative impact on vulnerable LGBTI high schools students.
Nondiscrimination laws governing public schools expressly prohibit expulsion on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, but until now it has been a given that private religious schools should be exempt.
It may not be a surprise to hear that many of the authorities presiding over religious schools are strongly against this move.
They claim that very few children are ever expelled for their sexuality or gender identity, but that it is important to preserve this so-called religious right.
”It’s exercised with great caution and consideration,” Ian Baker, acting executive director of the NSW Catholic Education Commission, said of the exemption. “The objective is not to punish, but to protect the rights of those families who send their child to a school based on a religious faith.”
“‘We couldn’t agree to the exemptions being removed,” he continues, “unless we could be assured that there’s an alternative way of guaranteeing freedom of religion, which is an internationally recognized human right.”
It should be noted however that not all religious school authorities are opposed to the change, with Len Hain, executive director of the Australian Council of Jewish Schools, quoted as saying, ”We do not see any practical limitation, or the imposition of any practical burden on that ability from the amendments deleting the specific exclusions to the Anti-Discrimination Act.”
Setting this amid the context of wider state law, NSW Attorney General Greg Smith has said, as of 2011 at least, that he would be open to reviewing the exception in the law and is said to be reviewing whether the administration will back the bill.
More widely, the Australian Parliament — whom it would not be beyond bounds to call predominantly socially conservative — recently extended the country’s sex discrimination laws to cover LGBT and intersex people. In so doing, they carved out broad exceptions for private religious institutions.
As you can see, this is an issue that cannot easily be answered by the current law framework.
MP Greenwich’s bill presents an interesting proposition: should religious freedom extend to being able to expel students on grounds of their LGBT identity?
Well, taken on the face of it, we might argue yes. Religious schools, if they are to exist at all (and sidestepping that very important question for the sake of brevity), should be able to hold students to the principles of their religious ethos and expect behavior that accords with those teachings.
But there’s the rub. This presumes that the parents enrolling their children in such schools might have known their child was LGBT at the time of enrollment.
Given that sexuality and gender identity may not fully emerge until well into mid-adolescence, allowing schools the freedom to expel pupils for being LGBT — a characteristic that an overwhelming body of evidence would frame as immutable — most definitely is punishing that child for expressing their innate sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Further, and as MP Greenwich has also touched upon, while preserving freedom of religion is certainly of keen interest to all, it is unlikely that deleting this special exemption is actually going to be that injurious to the religious.
However, ending the possible stigma this exemption allows against LGBT pupils would improve life for LGBT pupils who prior to this would have felt and, according to reports, have felt that speaking about their identity or seeking help for a related problem could result in them being kicked out of their schools.
Further, even private religious schools do often benefit from public funds whether via grants, subsidies or by virtue of tax breaks. In most other areas of public spending, those funds are subject to the LGBT-encompassing nondiscrimination provisions, yet religious schools continue to hold powers to discriminate.
When weighed as such, the issue would appear to clearly balance in favor of deleting the exemption and ending the special privilege to discriminate that religious schools currently enjoy.
For, as Justin Koonin from the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby touched on, if as the schools claim they aren’t using the provision to expel pupils, why keep the exemption at all?
In fact, why not elect to be radical? Why not, without any legislative coaxing of course, decide to do something I am led to believe is also key to particularly the Christian ethos and specifically state that your religious schools will not judge on grounds of LGBT identity and concentrate on the business at hand: teaching.
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