Senator Stoker faces tough questions over Religious Discrimination bill

Amanda Stoker

Senator Amanda Stoker has faced tough questioning about the government Religious Discrimination bill, and whether it allows discrimination of teachers or students over their sexuality and gender identity.

Appearing on the ABC’s RN Breakfast this morning the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General faced some tough questioning from host Fran Kelly. When it came to the issue of protecting gay students Senator Stoker said different issues were being conflated, highlighting that the discrimination was allowed under the current Sex Discrimination act, but was not the focus of the new Religious Discrimination legislation.

The possibility that students could be expelled from a religious based school was highlighted by the Ruddock Review which the Turnbull government commissioned in the wake of the marriage laws being change in 2017.

In 2018 Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would take action to update the legislation, and it could be fixed within a fortnight. However he was unable to meet an agreement with the opposition and cross benchers who also wanted protections for staff.

In 2019 then Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the issue to the Australian Law Reform Commission, but asked them to hold off on investigating until 12 months after the passage of the Religious Discrimination bill. Porter’s first two drafts of the bill failed to get support, but now the third daft from new Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has been introduced to parliament.

Senator Cash has confirmed she wrote to the Law Reform Commission last week asking them to look into the issue of discrimination of teachers and students, however there is still a 12 month hold on the action.

Senator Stoker said the government was tackling the issue, but passing the Religious Discrimination bill was coming first.

“What the government has committed to do is to meet the commitment it made some time ago to work through with the Australian Law Reform Commission a way forward that involves removing, particularly in relation to students, those provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act that create risk.” Senator Stoker said.

The senator said overwhelmingly religious based schools did not expel students from schools because of their sexuality with most preferring to take a pastoral care approach.

“They’re all saying they don’t want to do this to students and teachers, overwhelmingly they like to include and support pastorally.”

Fran Kelly challenged the Assistant Minister saying that while overwhelming most school do, there is also evidence of teachers being sacked when schools learn about their sexuality, and there were also cases of students being kicked out too.

Senator Stoker responded saying she wasn’t going to “split hairs” on the issue, but Kelly pressed her by highlighting that other Liberal party members have voiced concern.

“Your colleague Fiona Martin whose a psychologist and has worked with kids and teenagers is saying the Sex Discrimination act should be amended now to stop it happening.” Kelly noted, before asking why the government was not taking action to change the Sex Discrimination Act.

“We’ve made the commitment both to bring in the Religious Discrimination act and to look at those provision in the Sex Discrimination act. It’s important that we do them well, that we do them in a way that bring s people with us. That’s exactly what we are doing, we also took the Religious Discrimination bill to an election as you’ll recall, we’ve had an elaborate consultation process and it’s ready to go.” Senator Stoker said.

When it came to the issue raised about protecting students and staff in faith based schools who can be discriminated against under the Sex Discrimination act, Senator Stoker said the matter was “still on the table.” and the Morrison government was committed to reviewing the legislation. “There just to be done in two different pieces, and they’re in different acts – that makes sense.”

While the government is yet to take action on solving the discrimination that can be faced to students and teachers over sexuality and gender identity, Senator Stoker said the government was making it clear to people that the Religious Discrimination act was not intended as a tool to permit such discrimination.

“We need to make sure that people from a religious perspective,  or indeed a right-not-t0-believe perspective, don’t face discrimination and it’s very important that in doing so we make it very clear we are not permitting, or authorising, or empowering discrimination of other protected attributes.” Senator Stoker said, noting that people needed to think of the legislation as a shield not a sword.

Asked if under the Religious Discrimination act, which has provisions that require religious bodies and schools to have a clear statement of beliefs, entities would be able to fire a teacher who is discovered to be gay, Senator Stoker appeared to work her way around giving a direct answer.

“Well let’s think about this in practice.” Senator Stoker said. “If a teacher applies to work at a school whether it’s Christian, whether it’s Islamic, whether it’s Jewish, or any other – and they apply to work at a school that’s got a clearly stated policy and that policy…”

Kelly interrupted saying “That’s what I’m asking you. Can that policy say ‘We don’t employ gay teachers’? If this Christian school is looking at the employment of a Christian teacher and that Christian teacher happens to be gay , can that disqualify them from employment? Is that allowed under this bill?”

“Look I think that is something that would depend a great deal upon what that school is prepared to be upfront with the community about. I’d suggest there are very few schools that want to be in a position where they’ve got to say to the community that this is what we believe and we’re not going to hire people unless they subscribe to a version of beliefs that is very very strict on that front.” Senator Stoker said.

Pressing the point Kelly continued, “That would not be illegal though, to have that statement that said ‘we don’t accept homosexuality so therefor we will not hire homosexual staff’, that wouldn’t be illegal under this statement of beliefs.

“That’s conflating a few different things, that not a statement of belief.” Senator Stoker said, explaining under the legislation a statement  is  “the ability of a person to politely and respectfully, and without citing violence, state what they believe to others, without fear that they will be dragged before a tribunal accused of having discriminated for stating their genuinely held, good faith, religious belief. That’s what a statement of belief is.”

“If a school has a belief set that they can show is justified  from the core of their religious beliefs, that they are prepared to make public and plain, and that they are prepared to be upfront about to people who apply to work in a place, should be able to require that people act consistently with it.”

Senator Stoker said by religious schools being upfront about their beliefs potential employment candidates would know where they stood.

“If we look at the big picture here, what these schools do is provide education in an environment, in a school culture, that is shaped by the fact of the way that that religious belief is implemented across that community, and if you take away the ability to deliver a community that is based on that, then you might as well have public schools across the board.” the senator said.

OIP Staff

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