Proposed Law: Religious Schools to Lose Right to Fire Based On Sexuality

Religious schools and organizations in the Australian state of Victoria will soon be prohibited from hiring or terminating based on the applicant's gender identity or sexual orientation. On September 16th, the Victorian Labor Party in Australia proposed a law that would end this discrimination.

Currently, religious organizations are free to end or deny employment to LGBTQI+ people simply because of their sexuality. This new law proposed by the Dan Andrews Labor government will likely pass under social reform.

In 2011, the Australian Liberal government ended protections for LGBTQI+ people against the discrimination they would face. Religious organizations were exempted from anti-discrimination laws by the Liberal government, allowing them legal permission to either fire or prevent LGBTQI+ applicants from being hired.

Ten years later, on September 16, 2021, the Dan Andrews Labor government announced their proposal to change the 2011 law, thereby reforming the special exemption status specified for religious entities in 2011. The government also said, "religious bodies that receive government funding to provide services will also not be able to refuse to provide those services to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity."

Australian MP and Victorian Greens LGBTQIA+ spokesperson, Sam Hibbins, welcomed the announcement, saying, "No-one should live in fear of losing their job or being kicked out of school for who they love or how they identify, but that's exactly what these harmful exemptions are doing."

Victorian Attorney-General, Jaclyn Symes, said the state is not in step with other areas of Australia. She stated that the new proposal is meant to calm some employees' fears about their gender identity or sexual orientation exposure to their religious employers. Under current laws, their fears are justified as they would likely lose their jobs.

"People shouldn't have to hide who they are to keep their job. We're closing this unfair, hurtful gap in our laws so that Victoria's LGBTIQ+ community won't have to pretend to be someone they're not, just to do the job they love," Symes noted.

Symes added, "These laws will strike the right balance between protecting the LGBTIQ+ community from discrimination and supporting the fundamental rights of religious bodies and schools to practice their faith."

The Victorian government addressed that they would not introduce the legislation into parliament until it consults with pertinent LGBTQI+ individuals, faith groups, and schools.

The proposed changes to the 2011 law have triggered Christianity's religious system to debate. As the country's predominant faith with a conservative Christian advocacy group, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has expressed views that the proposal is an "attack on people of faith."

Marc Spencer, the ACL's public policy director, stated they dispute the state's proposal. He believes the legislation could "change the nature of Christian schools."

Spencer asked, "Why is the Government trying to dictate to a Christian school who it can employ or in what role?" He added concerns that the attorney general chooses all staff members based on their political beliefs, but Christian schools are banned from selecting employees based on religious convictions.

Interviewed by The Age, Jaclyn Symes explained that the new reform would allow employers to expect potential employees to possess specific qualifications as a condition of employment. But the employer must also avoid discrimination by keeping their expectations "reasonable" should they not hire the applicant.

For example, a Christian school may not deny employment to a gay or transgender applicant based on their identity. However, they could still deny employment if they have distinctly different religious beliefs for a position as a Christian studies teacher.

Victorian Attorney-General, Jaclyn Symes noted that Tasmania has the most influential protections for LGBTQI+ employees of religious organizations in Australia. She adds that the proposed reforms could align Victoria with Tasmania again.

Sadly, the proposed Victorian legislation could contend against an expected federal government proffer to launch its Religious Discrimination Bill to Parliament later in 2021. Expectations are that both the federal and Victorian bills will be tabled in October.

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