Greens: WA government must commit to removing religious exemptions

OPINION

In the midst of the campaign for marriage equality in Australia three and a half years ago, the ‘gay wedding cake’ scenario quickly emerged as the international symbol of the simmering tensions between the campaign for rights for the LGBTIQ+ community, and religious rights. Cases of bakers in the US and the UK refusing to bake same sex wedding cakes highlighted the complex issues at play in the conflict between human rights and freedom of religion.

Back at home, the Federal Government’s response to the question about how our judicial system would respond, should the cake debate erupt here (who would have thought that apparently there are so many homophobic bakers?*), was to hastily commission a review of religious freedom laws, initiated 15 days before marriage equality laws were passed on 7 December 2017. It resulted in the now infamous Ruddock Review – an own-goal from the Government, which brought to light the discrimination likely to impact on the LGBTIQ+ community and others, already enshrined in Federal, and State and Territory law in the form of religious exemptions to anti-discrimination law.

Meanwhile, here in WA, the ugly implications of religious exemptions had shown themselves as recently as 2015, when the father of a 7-year-old child was told his daughter would not have been welcome at her Mandurah Christian school, had the school known her dads were gay. Two years later, and in the midst of the marriage equality debate, a gay teacher was sacked from a Rockingham Baptist school. These outrageous examples of legal discrimination should never be allowed under WA law. There was wide support for change – with an April 2018 YouGov Galaxy Poll showing 78% of Australians believed religious schools should not be entitled to taxpayer funding if they discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers and students. Australians were embracing the LGBTIQ+ community, and had made their feelings clear: they wanted less discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people, not more.

But the WA Government has, to date, failed to step in to remove the religious exemptions, which continue to cancel out the human rights of the LGBTIQ community and others. I welcomed the news in 2019 that the Law Reform Commission of WA would undertake a review of the Equal Opportunities Act 1984 (Project 111). This is long overdue. Only one review has to date taken place in almost 37 years – in 2007 – but its recommendations are now outdated and barely any of them were implemented anyway. Yet it is now almost two years on and we are yet to even see a discussion paper from Project 111. And the fact is, the Equal Opportunity Act has been amended multiple times since its creation. Any suggestion that further amendment can only be contemplated as part of an overall review is a complete furphy. It is not good enough. Western Australians need and deserve protection from discrimination NOW.

just.equal found in October 2019 that 81.6% of LGBTIQ+ people surveyed felt worse during the public debate around religious exemptions than they did during the 2017 marriage equality survey. Survey participants felt the primary aim of religious organisations advocating for greater religious freedom was to take AWAY the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, with only 7.9% saying they felt the aim was to protect particular religious views. I introduced my Equal Opportunity (LGBTIQ Anti-Discrimination) Amendment Bill 2018 to amend section 73 of the Equal Opportunity Act, preventing faith-based schools from legally discriminating against LGBTIQ staff, parents and students, except on specific religious grounds (a Jewish school may opt to enrol only Jewish students, for example.) The passing of my bill would, at that time and now, have acted as a stop-gap to protect people from discrimination, in the interim before the review is completed – or new Federal legislation is passed. But the Government would not contemplate any support for my Bill or even creating their own.

A State Election 2021 Pre-Election survey from Rainbow Futures WA showed 87.6% of respondents strongly supported “strengthening anti-discrimination protections in employment, education and service provision, including removing religious exemptions.” The reform had the highest support of any, second only to banning LGBTIQ+ religious conversion practices. It is clear – the Government must lift its game – and commit to removing harmful religious exemptions, ensuring that ALL Western Australians have equal human rights – and the right to live free from discrimination.

*For the record my brother is a baker and owns the largest bakery in the Pilbara and he is more than happy to bake any wedding cake for anyone at any time.

Alison Xamon

Alison Xamon MLC is leader of The Greens in the Western Australian Parliament. 


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