Equality Australia expresses disappointment at further delays to urgently needed protections for LGBTQ students and staff in religious schools, following the extension of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) anti-discrimination inquiry. The Commonwealth Attorney-General revealed ALRC will have until the end of 2023 to hand down recommendations into religious exemptions for institutions under federal anti-discrimination and employment laws.
Why is the ALRC review delay harmful?
While the human rights organisation understood that the ALRC had received a large number of submissions, LGBTIQ+ communities have already been waiting years for protections in religious schools. We have spent more than a decade raising this issue, with many reviews and attempts to change the law, so it’s disappointing to hear news today of a further delay.
While the 2013 reforms protecting LGBTIQ+ people from discrimination were a huge step forward, they left significant gaps in protections for workers, students and service users in religious schools and organisations, which successive governments have failed to address.
These gaps have directly impacted many people from our community, as demonstrated by the number of people who have lost their jobs and students who have faced discrimination at school. Equality Australia identified a number of individuals in its submission to the ALRC who have been directly impacted by the government’s inaction. Some of them include:
Steph Lentz was fired from her role as an English teacher at a Christian school in Sydney in 2021 after she came out as a lesbian. The school fired Steph because the church she attended was affirming of LGBTIQ+ people.
Karen Pack is a committed Christian and an ordained pastor. In 2020, she was fired from her role as a teacher at a Baptist tertiary college in Sydney after she became engaged to her same-sex partner. Karen was employed by the college in February 2018 and lectured in chaplaincy and spiritual care, a post-graduate program she had been engaged by the college to develop.
Rachel Colvin is a committed Christian and mother of three married to a male partner. In 2019, she was constructively dismissed from her role as a teacher at a non-denominational Christian School in Ballarat after 10 years’ service. Rachel was forced to resign after she refused to agree to and abide by an amended statement of faith, contrary to her own religious beliefs, that marriage ‘can only be between a male and a female’.
Nathan Zamprogno is a gay man who lost his job as a teacher at a Christian School in Sydney in 2020 after 20 years’ service because the school discovered his sexuality.
Elise Christian is a teacher and committed Christian who worked in a learning support role with children aged between 10 and 12 at a Christian school in NSW in 2016 and 2017. In 2021 she told a Senate inquiry that she believes she lost her job after trying to support students who were bullied by classmates and senior staff because of their suspected sexuality.
Evie MacDonald is a trans girl who attended a religious school in the Mornington Peninsula between 2011 and 2015. In 2015, when Evie was 10 years old, a teacher divided the class into boys and girls. When Evie said she wanted to be with the girls the teacher physically dragged her to the group of boys. She was also forced to attend seven sessions of chaplaincy counselling intended to prevent her affirming her gender as a girl, without her parents’ knowledge.
Olivia Stewart is a trans girl who attended a co-ed Sydney Anglican school in year 7. When she informed the school of her intention to start year 8 as a girl, Olivia’s family were told that if she stayed at the school they would write to the parents of other students to inform them there was a trans student at the school. Olivia changed schools.
Sam Cairns is a lesbian teacher who lost her job at a Christian school in Victoria in 2012 after 7 years’ service because the school became aware of her ‘choice of sexuality’.
John Connors is a gay man who worked as a teacher and principal at various schools in the Catholic education system for 37 years. He was threatened by an ex-partner of being outed to his employer, which he strongly believes would have resulted in him losing his job. He always kept his sexuality a secret out of fear and felt he could not talk about it with his colleagues.
How can ALRC remedy the situation?
Equality Australia Legal Director Ghassan Kassisieh said this discrimination was happening in religious schools in many places because of gaps in Australian laws that made it lawful. “While we have waited for the law to change to protect our community, more people have lost their jobs and more children have been forced to leave school or been denied leadership roles. These legal gaps could have been addressed very simply, and quickly,” Kassisieh said.
“We have engaged constructively with the Australian Law Reform Commission and hope it uses the extension to get the detail right. People should not lose their jobs because they refer to their same-sex partners at work or be denied opportunities for leadership because they come out as gay or transgender, or support LGBTQ+ people,” Kassisieh further added.
Kassisieh said the current law in Australia was out of step with 21st century community expectations. “Students should be able to go to school and feel free, supported to learn and safe from discrimination, and no teacher should feel they might lose their job because of their sexuality or gender identity, or because they support a student who is gay or trans,” he said.
Anna Brown is the CEO at Equality Australia. Equality Australia ensures that LGBTIQ+ people are equal in Australia. They share information and resources to support LGBTIQ+ people. They also use their legal, policy and communications expertise, to ensure that organisations have the right tools to deliver for the LGBTIQ+ community.