Should schools be able to expel gay students? Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison can’t decide

A religious freedom report recommends amending a federal law to allow religious schools to discriminate against students and teachers based on factors such as gender and sexual orientation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 7:30pm

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that schools should not be able to expel students based on their sexuality, just hours after arguing schools should be run consistent with their religious principles and “no one” is suggesting their right to discriminate should be repealed.

Morrison told Sky News on Thursday that he’ll “happily take the criticism” that he should have ruled out discrimination based on sexuality sooner but claimed the Ruddock religious freedom report had been misrepresented.

The Ruddock review recommended the commonwealth amend the federal Sex Discrimination Act to provide “that religious schools may discriminate in relation to students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status”. This positive right would replace existing religious exemptions in federal law that allow discrimination but do not override state laws.

Australia ditches ‘tampon tax’ after sexist claims

LGBTI advocates fear the effect of the recommendation could be to override state discrimination laws that provide more protection for students – including in Queensland and Tasmania – and Phillip Ruddock himself has not ruled out a federal takeover.

But the government has focused on the report’s proposed safeguards including that schools must “regard to the best interests of the child as the primary consideration in its conduct” and a requirement to publicise a school policy on discrimination, arguing these would limit not extend religious schools’ ability to discriminate.

Morrison told Sky News he was “not comfortable” with schools turning away gay children but accused Fairfax Media – which first reported the Ruddock recommendation – of misrepresenting the report.

Morrison said the Ruddock review was focused on “what is necessary to ensure a positive right of freedom of religion but at the same time not to disrespect or disenfranchise the rights of other Australians” including on the grounds of sexuality.

“I don’t think if someone’s at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group.

“We do not think that children should be discriminated against.”

Earlier on Thursday, Morrison told 3AW that “religious schools should be able to run their schools based on their religious principles” and claimed that “no one” is calling for existing exemptions to be repealed.

We do not think that children should be discriminated against
Prime Minister Scott Morrison

The comments left Morrison in the precarious position of having stated a principled opposition to religious schools discriminating on the grounds of sexuality while backing a call to enshrine a right to do just that in federal law, albeit with safeguards.

The Greens have announced they will introduce a bill to abolish the religious exemption to discrimination law, while cross-benchers Derryn Hinch and Centre Alliance’s Rex Patrick have also expressed opposition to the ability to discriminate.

The attorney general Christian Porter has said that the current balance of rights “probably could do with a little bit of fine tuning, but I don’t think that, and it’s not recommended, that the balance be shifted further towards schools being able to discriminate”.

Why China’s richest flock to Australia – even if they are not always welcome

On Friday, the former international development minister, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a leading Liberal conservative, called for the Ruddock report to be released “as soon as possible, so that we can progress to ensuring that the religious freedoms of Australians are protected”.

Fierravanti-Wells joins former high court judge Michael Kirby and the independent candidate Kerryn Phelps, who have both called for the report to be released before the 20 October Wentworth by-election.

Morrison has said the Ruddock review recommendations have not gone to cabinet and the government’s timetable is “to deal with this by the end of the year”, confirming it will not be public before the by-election.