Ideology trumps religious freedoms in Qld Anti-Discrimination amendments

The Queensland state government tabled its anticipated amendments to the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act on 15 June 2024, following a one-month consultation period with the community.

The ‘Respect at Work and Other Matters Amendments Bill 2024’ enacts some of the recommendations made by the Queensland Human Rights Commission in its review of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991. One recommendation not followed in the bill is the removal of exemptions allowing faith-based schools to employ staff who support the beliefs and faith of the school.

However, while such exemptions will remain in law for now, this is little comfort when considering other amendments expanding non-discrimination rights and imposing a “positive duty to eliminate workplace discrimination”. Such a duty adds a significant regulatory burden and conflicts with the right of Christian schools to positively select staff who support the ethos and character of the school.

Furthermore, Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath said that the government “remained committed to all of the reforms” but that the removal of exemptions for religious schools must align with the federal approach in response to the Australian Law Reform Commission report from March.

Even without the removal of exemptions, the amendments tabled last week still pose a grave threat to religious freedom in Queensland.

As the Australian Christian Lobby has noted:

“If passed, the modified Bill would still inflict major damage on religious schools, because amendments introduced would make immediate changes, enlarging discrimination prohibitions and imposing burdensome obligations on religious schools, among other measures consistent with creating one of the most repressive and restrictive legislative regimes against religious freedoms in Australia”.

“The new bill creates a hostile framework that favours ideologies that are incompatible with fundamental religious beliefs”.

The bill would make it much harder for faith-based organisations to make staffing decisions that support their values, ethos and teachings. The recent story of a Sydney school teacher who lost her role at a Christian school after publicising her same-sex relationship in a Facebook post demonstrates the social pressure on Christian schools and the importance of effective legal protections.

In a letter written to the teacher (and published in the media story), the Principal wrote that:

“At the commencement of your employment in 2022 it was an agreed condition of your employment as a teacher that you supported the doctrines and beliefs of the College, which are grounded in an Evangelical Christian Tradition, in profession and in practice. This was reflected expressly in the employment contract that you signed at the time”.

Christian schools are communities of faith and formation in which parents in partnership with schools can opt for education based on a particular religious ethos. The protections provided by religious discrimination exemptions ensure that religious schools are able to make staffing decisions to ensure this ethos and teaching is not undermined by teachers or staff who oppose it.

Schools must be free to require teachers and staff to demonstrate a commitment to supporting the school’s culture by believing and acting consistently with the requirements of the faith, “in profession and in practice”.

As former Prime Minister John Howard has recently stated:

“It’s very simple. You have a perfect right, if you are running a Catholic school or an Anglican school, if you’ve got a teacher who is kicking against the fundamentals of the religion, you’ve got a perfect right to say, ‘Wish you well, God bless you, but get a job somewhere else’”.

HRLA provides assistance to Christian organisations wanting to protect their religious freedom rights against hostile laws.