The State Government has announced a review of WA’s “outdated” equal opportunity laws amid an escalating debate about the ability of religious schools across the country to discriminate against gay teachers and students.
Religious schools are allowed under existing law to turn away teachers and students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
However, a long-awaited review of whether religious freedoms are adequately protected in Australia has recommended that exemptions for religious schools be trimmed.
The Federal Government is yet to release the report led by former Howard government minister Philip Ruddock, but The West Australian understands it calls for religious schools to only be able to discriminate on sexuality grounds if they have a publicly available policy outlining their position and prospective students and their parents are provided with a written copy of that policy when they enrol.
Set up after last year’s historic same-sex marriage vote and handed to the Government in May, the report also recommends that a school take account of the “best interests of the child as the primary consideration in its conduct”.
“To the extent that some jurisdictions do not currently allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender characteristics, the panel sees no need to introduce such provisions,” the report says. “Very few religious schools or organisations submitted that this was necessary.
“To the extent, however, that certain jurisdictions including the Commonwealth do allow this type of discrimination, the panel believes the exceptions should be limited by the requirement that the discrimination be in accordance with a published policy which is grounded in the religious doctrines of the school.”
In addition to provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act that allow religious schools to discriminate in accordance with their religious doctrines, similar exemptions exist in WA law.
But Attorney-General John Quigley yesterday flagged a Law Reform Commission of WA review of the State’s Equal Opportunity Act, which has not been revisited since 2007. He said stakeholders would be consulted and the Ruddock report would be taken into consideration.
“Not only is that review now considered outdated, but the vast majority of its recommendations were never implemented,” Mr Quigley said.
“It is the McGowan Government’s intention to refer the Act to the Law Reform Commission of WA so that a comprehensive review of this outdated legislation can be carried out.
Debate about religious schools’ right to discriminate flared in November last year after The West revealed a gay relief teacher was removedJU from the roster at South Coast Baptist College in Waikiki after revealing that he was in a same-sex relationship.
Premier Mark McGowan said he was “personally uncomfortable” with religious schools discriminating against gay students and teachers, but the review would look at what reforms were necessary.