Australia needs a Human Rights Act, not a Religious Discrimination Act

October 12, 2018

Leading human rights lawyers have expressed alarm at recent reports about leaked content of the Ruddock review into religious protections commissioned after last year’s postal vote on marriage equality. Instead of singling out the right to religious freedom, they are calling on the Morrison Government to introduce a national Human Rights Act to protect human rights for all.

Reports from national media outlets have revealed the review, released to the Federal Government in May but thus far withheld from other parties and the public, includes a recommendation that the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act be amended to further enshrine the right of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) President Kerry Weste said, “It is very concerning that freedom of religion is being singled out in a way that does not reflect Australia’s international legal obligations to protect other human rights equally. These leaks serve to shine a very bright spotlight on the fact that Australia is now the only Western democracy bereft of a national Human Rights Act to legally protect the basic rights and freedoms of all Australians.”

“The protection of human rights and measures to enshrine Australia’s international legal obligations in Commonwealth legislation cannot be done on a piecemeal basis. It is settled international law that human rights have no hierarchy and are interdependent and indivisible. For example, one person’s right to freedom of religion does not trump another’s to live a life free from discrimination. We also have the obligation to respect all of the human rights of others, and not just their religious rights.”

Ms Weste said, ”Anti-discrimination legislation in some states and territories already allow exemptions when it comes to the hiring of staff or enrolment of LGBT children in private educational institutions, religious or otherwise. However, in Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT there is no exemption permitting exclusion of students on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. Action under anti-discrimination legislation can be brought under the relevant Commonwealth or state or territory law. But, if the recommended amendments to the Commonwealth legislation are  enacted, the Federal law would likely take precedence over state and territory law, rendering the protections in Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT void.

“It is extremely concerning that the supposed rights of religious schools to overtly discriminate against LGBT children could take precedence over accepted international human rights laws and standards relating to freedom from discrimination and harassment. Australia has international legal obligations to protect the fundamental human rights of all children,  including the right to protection from mental or physical harm, the right to freedom from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, the right to education and the right to freedom of expression,” Ms Weste said.

“What happens if no religious school in a particular state or territory will agree to accept LGBT children? Despite reports the recommendations would only apply to future students, what happens to a child who commences at a school at five years of age and is subsequently expelled as a vulnerable teenager upon admission or suspicion relating to their sexuality or gender identity? Are LGBT children and their families not entitled to seek out a religious education? It is unacceptable for the Prime Minister to support discrimination against the LGBT community for a characteristic that is outside of their control.”

Georgia Burke, Co-Chair of ALHR’s LGBTI Rights Committee said, “The Prime Minister’s comments in relation to “gender whispering” and the leaked recommendations of the review cause significant concern for LGBT students, parents, teachers and supporters as to the future of inclusive schools. This should be of concern to the entire Australian community.”

“Early next year, Australia is due to appear at the UN and report on its compliance with the Convention on The Rights of the Child (CRC), of which Australia is a signatory. Yet the Prime Minister’s recent comments show little regard for our obligations under the CRC which establish that all children have an equal right to an education that provides life skills, the capacity to enjoy the full range of human rights and which promotes a culture infused by appropriate human rights values such as inclusivity”.

There was well publicised concern for LBGT youth during the 2017 plebiscite campaign, including the mental health impacts  arising from exposure to negative commentary around their relationships. To have made it through this period, only to have further public debate in relation to the “otherness” of this vulnerable group is of great concern. We are at risk of regressing Australia’s anti-discrimination law  when we ought to be promoting and enjoying an era of progress for the rights of LGBTI persons and particularly children.”

Contact: Matt Mitchell, ALHR media manager 0431 980 365.