Federal anti-discrimination laws, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), prohibit discrimination in a wide range of settings against people on grounds including sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, or pregnancy. However, these laws provide exceptions for religious educational institutions, including schools.
These exceptions mean that discrimination on certain grounds by religious schools is not unlawful under Federal law where it is ‘in good faith’ and ‘in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed’. The exceptions recognise the impacts that anti-discrimination law, which protects fundamental rights to non-discrimination and equality, may have on the exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
The Australian Government has committed to reforming Federal anti-discrimination laws to ensure that a religious educational institution:
- must not discriminate against a student on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
- must not discriminate against a member of staff on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
- can continue to build a community of faith by giving preference, in good faith, to persons of the same religion as the educational institution in the selection of staff.
The Government has asked the ALRC to consider what changes should be made to Federal anti-discrimination laws to ensure, to the extent practicable, that these laws reflect the Government’s commitments in a manner that is consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations.
Under treaties that it has signed, Australia has obligations to respect and protect human rights including rights to non-discrimination and equality, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, life, privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of association, work, education, cultural rights, and children’s rights. In undertaking this reference, the ALRC will consider the frameworks that international human rights law provides for managing the intersections of these rights, and the experiences of other jurisdictions, to propose reforms consistent with Australia’s international obligations.
The Terms of Reference for this Inquiry replace those of a previous Inquiry into Religious Exemptions in Anti-Discrimination Legislation that had been on hold since March 2020 pending potential legislative developments.
The ALRC released a Consultation Paper on 27 January 2023, and submissions closed on 24 February 2023. In light of the large volume of submissions received, the ALRC requested an extension to its reporting deadline. This extension was confirmed on 20 April 2023, with amended Terms of Reference extending the date for reporting to 31 December 2023.
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