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State laws must curb the right to discrimination

State and federal anti-discrimination laws, along with changing community expectations, have transformed our workplaces. While the equal rights battle for women is their most notable success, similar efforts to stamp out discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, disability and race have created more diverse workplaces than at any time in our history.

But these gains should not be taken for granted, nor characterised as job done. This week, The Age reported on teachers being sacked by religious schools after coming out as gay.

Teacher Steph Lentz, who was sacked by her Christian school after she told it she was gay.

Teacher Steph Lentz, who was sacked by her Christian school after she told it she was gay.Credit:Kate Geraghty

In the case of Steph Lentz, the English teacher was shown the door by the Covenant Christian School after realising she could no longer remain closeted. The school terminated her employment for failing to follow the school’s statement of belief, which includes the belief in the “immorality” of homosexuality.

Her sacking was perfectly legal under most state and federal laws, including those in Victoria, which give religious organisations and their schools exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation, despite the generous public funding they receive. The Andrews government has long pledged to enact new laws to shut down the loophole – Tasmania and the ACT have already done so – but has so far failed to act.

What’s at stake in these arguments is a balance between competing rights: your right to believe what you want and act on those beliefs; and my right to work, to be myself, and to live without feeling harassed. Under current law in Victoria and other states, religious organisations have more freedom to discriminate than others.

The law remains contended, not least because of a promise made by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to inquire into the state of religious freedom in Australia – a promise made as a concession to the right wing of his party after the marriage equality legislation passed.

That inquiry prompted draft legislation, the Religious Discrimination Bill, which went through two drafts under former attorney-general Christian Porter. It upset the balance and was strongly contended on all sides, then delayed. A third draft, being put together by Mr Porter’s successor, Michaelia Cash, is expected by the end of the year.

Where and when that legislation ultimately lands is unknown, but the earlier drafts allowed people to make discriminatory statements if they were genuine statements of religious belief. On the face of it, this would have overridden strong state laws, such as Tasmania’s which prohibit such statements, but to what extent is unknown. People interested in this area are watching keenly.

So where does this leave religious schools? Let’s be clear: not all religious organisations or their schools want to discriminate against LGBTQ+ teachers or students. Many schools are run by religious organisations that tolerate and welcome gay and lesbian teachers. Ms Lentz is now working at one of them. Only a few would sack or discipline teachers or expel students if they came out as gay.

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