Proposed Queensland discrimination laws threaten Christian schools

The Queensland Government has released draft new anti-discrimination laws for consultation and community feedback.

The legislation is in response to a review undertaken by the Queensland Human Rights Commission of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 and seeks to replace the Act in its entirety.

The new law proposes to remove existing exemptions to anti-discrimination law for religious schools that currently allow schools to positively select staff who support the Christian principles and ethos of the school. The new law would only permit schools to preferentially hire staff for roles directly connected to religious teaching or observance, rather than for all staff appointments at a school.

The proposal is in part a response to the controversy surrounding Citipointe Christian College, which faced backlash after releasing an updated enrolment contract for parents at the school. The contract explicitly stated traditional Christian teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity, among the school’s broader Christian beliefs.

The media furore surrounding the issue resulted in Citipointe withdrawing the contract. Activists leveraged the controversy to call for existing exemptions for faith based schools to be withdrawn.

The proposed changes have been described as “Orwellian” by Christian schools and organisations. If enacted, the new law will breach religious freedom rights of organisations in the state and will encroach upon the ability of faith organisations to operate in accordance with their ethos and values. 

ACL Queensland Director Rob Norman has said:

“If tabled and passed, religious schools will be required to surrender some of their deepest-held theological views and values and be subjected to the invasive oversight of the Department of Justice and the Attorney-General”.

Mark Fowler, anti-discrimination lawyer and adjunct associate professor at the Universities of Notre Dame and New England, has warned that the proposal would “legislate the most restrictive regime for religious institutions in Australia”.

The new law demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of religious freedom laws in Australia.

Faith based organisations in Queensland rely on the current exemptions in the Act for protection of their religious freedom rights in accordance with international law. This important balancing protection recognises that when faith-based schools conduct their school in accordance with their doctrines, tenets and beliefs they are not discriminating, but exercising their right to freedom of religious belief and activity.

As Neil Foster, Associate Professor in Law has explained:

“One of the ways that religious freedom is protected in Australia is through the inclusion in discrimination laws of “balancing clauses” (provisions that balance the right not to be discriminated against, with the important right of religious freedom). But the new Bill will dramatically narrow those clauses”.

Dr Alex Deagon, an Associate Professor in the School of Law at QUT, goes further

“The proposed changes to the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act seek to narrow further the already narrow religious exceptions. These changes are the most restrictive regime for regulating religious bodies in Australia and will significantly undermine the ability of religious organisations to employ persons in accordance with their faith, contrary to both international law and constitutional law”.

Associate Professor Deagon has written a comprehensive analysis of the new laws, which explains the rationale for the existing exemptions:

“Imposing a ‘genuine occupational requirement’ standard and reasonableness inquiry are not necessary restrictions on religious freedom and ignore the fact that for many religious organisations, they are trying to create a faith culture. This necessitates employment of persons who fit in that culture by believing and acting consistently with the requirements of the faith, not merely by having technical proficiency in the role.”

It is not reasonable to assume that students in a school will only discuss matters of faith and religion with religious education teachers. Students potentially interact with, and engage in many conversations with any number of staff at a school:

“It is entirely possible that students may strike up a conversation with a receptionist or a groundskeeper, and if in the course of that conversation the student discovers the staff member believes or acts inconsistently with the school ethos, this could significantly undermine the consistent propagation of the school ethos”.

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. Religious education is concerned with more than just imparting facts and curriculum content. It provides opportunities for faith communities to come together to provide an authentic faith-based education and educational environment where every aspect reflects and models the faith of the community.

The Queensland Government is inviting submissions in response to the draft bill. Submissions are due by 22 March 2024 and can be made here.

HRLA encourages everyone concerned about these proposed laws to provide feedback to the government.