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Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
3 December 2021

I am really pleased to speak in support of the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. I want to start by acknowledging the work of the many organisations who have contributed to the changes in this bill, including the Victorian Pride Lobby, Equality Australia, Minus18 and Thorne Harbour Health. The religious exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 have long been a wrong that has needed to be righted. I would also like to acknowledge the work of my Greens colleges Sue Pennicuik and Sam Hibbins, who have been advocating in Parliament for these laws to be changed over many years, including by introducing our own version of the legislation we are debating today.

There is no doubt that this bill is a win for the LGBTIQ community and the many people who have fought for an end to discrimination against members of their community. It is a good week to be debating this bill, as the federal government has once again decided to intervene in this area of law and introduce its own piece of legislation related to religious discrimination. It seems like their bill is more about allowing discrimination to take place in religious schools than preventing it, by introducing broad exemptions to allow people of faith to discriminate against other people on the basis of their own religious belief. The federal bill would allow a religious school to tell their trans students that they are going to hell or an unmarried parent that they are evil for having a child out of wedlock. It is effectively a licence for more hate speech. Given that that legislation would override the bill we are debating today, it is clearly a blatant attempt by the federal government to prioritise religious expression over the rights and the wellbeing of our LGBTIQ community.

Our equal opportunity laws are designed to protect Victorians from discrimination and harassment. These laws reflect now-established community norms that people should not be discriminated against in employment or in accessing services on the basis of a range of characteristics—race, sex, sexuality, gender identity et cetera—except that when the laws were introduced significant carve-outs were allowed. Notably, religious organisations were able to keep themselves separate from these otherwise established community expectations. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. For example, a religious school can fire a teacher for being a single parent, a person with a same-sex partner can be turned away from accessing housing services or a food bank, an unmarried parent could be prevented from seeking refuge in a family violence shelter and trans kids can be excluded from school activities, forced into harmful counselling against their will or expelled simply for being themselves. For teachers and students at religious schools these exemptions mean they are constantly at risk of being targeted and treated poorly because of who they are. It means many feel unsafe at work, school or university, having to choose between accessing education or services and being their true selves.

I would like to acknowledge at this point that the majority of religious organisations are not exercising these discriminatory exemptions. They are accepting of all members of our community and do not exclude people on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, and they do not refuse to assist sole parents, divorcees or queer people. In fact many religious organisations provide vital community services to all in our communities regardless of whether they share the same faiths or beliefs or not. In the past year we have seen the amazing kindness and generosity of Sikh Volunteers Australia in providing meals for those isolating during the pandemic. We know that organisations such as Uniting actively support the LGBITQ community, staff and service users as well as this legislation, and there are many other examples of religious organisations who practice their beliefs in an inclusive way. But we are not here to change the laws because of these organisations. We are here to prevent those who would seek to discriminate from having a legal basis to do so. When LGBTIQ people are already enduring higher rates of bullying, harassment and violence than other Victorians we should be doing everything to prevent this from occurring, not opening the door for even more harm.

I know that most of us in this chamber know that allowing this kind of discrimination does not reflect the values of modern Victoria. Everyone should feel safe at school or at work and be treated with respect when accessing services or attending classes. While we understand that there can be tension between equal opportunity protections and freedom of religion, it is obvious that 10 years after these laws were enacted the act has got the balance wrong. This bill is finally closing this significant gap in our anti-discrimination laws and removing the ability for religious schools to discriminate on the basis of people’s sexuality, gender identity, sex, lawful sexual activity, marital status and parental status. This change will also extend to religious organisations who receive government funding; for example, organisations like Uniting or the Salvation Army, who run a range of really important services and community programs.

It also removes a broad exemption that allows any individual to discriminate against another on the basis of religion, an exemption that no other state in Australia has. The bill retains the ability for faith-based institutions to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring but introduces a more objective test so that it can only be done where religion is a really key part of the job and where the discrimination is reasonable and proportionate. It means that religious schools can still hire people of faith in appropriate roles—for example, as religious education teachers or principals. However, the bill does have a few loopholes remaining. We have heard from Equality Australia and the Victorian Pride Lobby that this bill presents an opportunity to strengthen our equal opportunity laws even further and really lead the country in anti-discrimination protections, which is why, on behalf of the Greens, we will be seeking amendments to this bill. I am happy for those amendments to be circulated now.

Greens amendments circulated by Dr RATNAM pursuant to standing orders.

Dr RATNAM: In brief, my amendments seek three changes: firstly, to remove the distinction between government-funded and non-government-funded services and prohibit religious bodies from discriminating against their service and facility users on the basis of any protected attribute except for religious belief and activity and sex; secondly, ensuring that the exemption allowing schools to set standards of dress et cetera are further limited by having those standards meet broad community expectations rather than allowing school communities to potentially undermine the new protections and set their own discriminatory standards; and finally, the ability for religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief is limited to the time of enrolment. This is consistent with similar laws in Tasmania.

I will speak in more detail about these amendments in the committee, but they are about improving protections against discrimination in the act, particularly for LGBTIQ students, and in the spirit of this bill, about closing ongoing loopholes within the bill that allow the discrimination to occur despite the intentions of the act. I commend this bill to the house.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
3 December 2021
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