Religious schools in Victoria will lose right to sack workers based on sexuality in law change

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Religious schools in Victoria will be banned from discriminating against staff on the basis of their sexuality, gender identity or marital status, under legislation to be introduced by the state government later this year.

Religious schools in Victoria currently have the power to sack or refuse to hire LGBTIQ+ people on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, and marital status.

The Victorian attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, said the state was out of step with other parts of Australia.

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She said the changes were being made to ease the fears some teachers and employees at religious schools had of being outed to their employers, and losing their job.

“People shouldn’t have to hide who they are to keep their job. We’re closing this unfair, hurtful gap in our laws so that Victoria’s LGBTIQ+ community won’t have to pretend to be someone they’re not, just to do the job they love,” she said.

“These laws will strike the right balance between protecting the LGBTIQ+ community from discrimination and supporting the fundamental rights of religious bodies and schools to practice their faith.”

Religious organisations will still be able to employ people based on their religious belief where it is critical to the job, and there will be no change in how schools will convey their religious beliefs to students.

Religious organisations that receive government funding for services will not be able to refuse to provide those services to people based on their sexuality or gender identity.

The Victorian government said it would consult with relevant LGBTIQ+, education groups and faith groups before the legislation is introduced into parliament.

Equality Australia CEO Anna Brown said the proposal was a demonstration of leadership and commitment to equality.

“By winding back outdated carve-outs in anti-discrimination laws, the Victorian government can ensure that people in Victoria can no longer be sacked, expelled, or treated unfairly by religious organisations such as school or service providers, simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation,” Brown said.

Independent Education Union Victoria and Tasmania general secretary Deb James welcomed the move, and said many of the union’s members had been discriminated against based on their gender identity or sexuality.

“These outdated laws have robbed students of skilled teachers, who also make schools inclusive and welcoming spaces for LGBTIQ+ students,” James said.

Christian Schools Australia’s director of public policy, Mark Spencer, told Guardian Australia that Christian schools “have never terminated staff based on their sexuality, gender identity or marital status”, but over differences in beliefs.

“It seems that the government’s proposal is that they or a court or tribunal will be given the right to determine what beliefs can be required to be held in what positions in a Christian, or Jewish, or Islamic school,” he said.

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“The government’s fact sheet also seems to suggest that individual people of faith will no longer be allowed to act on their beliefs when it comes to other attributes protected under the Equal Opportunity Act. This clearly downgrades protections for religious belief to a second class right, which is fundamentally inconsistent with international human rights law.”

Spencer said the Victorian government should rethink the proposals and ensure protections for religious freedom in line with international law.

The Victorian legislation could be set for a showdown against federal religious discrimination legislation the Coalition government has promised since marriage equality passed into law in 2017, and is expected to be released in the next month.

Federal attorney general Michaelia Cash has been consulting with religious groups and other parties in recent months, with reports Cash has been inundated with calls to override state-based laws banning conversion practices, and preventing schools from firing people on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity.

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