Australia: Bill will stop faith schools from expelling students based on sexual orientation

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

A private members bill will soon be introduced in the New South Wales State Parliament, which would remove the right of religious schools to expel students who come out as gay.

Independent Sydney MP, Alex Greenwich, will soon introduce the bill, which would remove the exemption for faith schools from a law which bans education authorities from expelling students based on their sexual orientation.

Mr Greenwich who is gay himself, said the law as it currently stands could be used against vulnerable teenagers, at the most vulnerable time of their lives.

“It is already so hard to come to grips with your sexuality,” he said. “If students do reach out to a teacher they believe is supportive or a headmaster or counsellor or school chaplain, they could risk expulsion from a school.”

The New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act currently bars education authorities from such discrimination, but faith schools are explicitly exempt from the law.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, several faith organisations argued against the proposed bill, saying it threatens their right to religious freedom.

Ian Baker, the head of the New South Wales Catholic Education Commission, said that there are very few instances of children or teenagers being expelled from schools based on sexuality, but rejected the removal of the exemption would mean demands of an alternative way of schools protecting their freedom of religion.

“It speaks for itself,” he said. ”It’s exercised with great caution and consideration. The objective is not to punish, but to protect the rights of those families who send their child to a school based on a religious faith.

“We couldn’t agree to the exemptions being removed unless we could be assured that there’s an alternative way of guaranteeing freedom of religion, which is an internationally recognised human right.”

Justin Koonin from the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, said he had questioned why such schools needed the exemptions if they weren’t using them.

“It’s not just that the student can be expelled, they can be discriminated against within the school environment, and the school doesn’t have to do anything about it,” he said.

The Human Rights Council of Australia recently submitted into an inquiry around federal anti-discrimination laws, and said that organisations wholly or partially funded with public money, including faith schools, should not be given exemptions based on religious grounds.

“It is reasonable for the state to require public funds to be expended and applied wholly in accordance with principles of nondiscrimination,” said the Council.