Australian PM Scott Morrison’s contentious Religious Discrimination Bill ‘risks LGBT+ lives’

Prime minister Scott Morrison smiles

Australian faith-based schools will be banned from expelling gay students but could still freely oust trans pupils in proposals agreed by ruling party lawmakers.

In the confusing and contentious saga of prime minister Scott Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill, ministers have repeatedly see-sawed between protecting Christian groups and LGBT+ rights to get enough MPs to support it.

On Tuesday (8 February), following marathon backdoor dealmaking, Morrison secured the support of the Coalition party room for his Religious Discrimination Bill at a party meeting.

This means both Liberal and National Party lawmakers said they would vote for the bill when it lands in parliament.

But Liberal Party MP Bridget Archer said she will not vote for a bill that falls short to protect LGBT+ young people, The Guardian reported. Five others voiced concerns.

“After so much progress, how did we get back to a place where we ignore the harm we place on children when we tell them they are ‘other’, ‘less than’ and do not deserve rights and protections afforded to others?” Archer told parliament.

“I fear it may risk lives.”

The Religious Discrimination Bill, introduced last November, would allow faith-based organisations like churches, schools and workplaces to offset anti-discrimination laws, as long as their “statements of belief” don’t “threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group”.

Watered down Religious Discrimination Bill will ‘hurt trans kids across the country’

It initially had an exemption that would allow schools of faith to discriminate and expel LGBT+ students, fuelling uproar among more moderate Liberal MPs.

To appease them, the proposals will strip the right for schools to expel gay and bisexual students – other forms of discrimination, though, will still be allowed. Trans people won’t even be afforded protections.

The loophole arises with how the Coalition agreed to tackle the problem. The government agreed to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to prevent expulsion on the basis of sexual orientation.

At the same time, an exemption to allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT+ pupils, known as Section 38(3), will remain. This was done “in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents,” Morrison told parliament.

While Morrison has bagged support from the two right-wing parties, the bill faces an unsure path in the House and Senate.

The government will likely need support from Labour to pass in both chambers, and the party hasn’t yet formalised its position.

“Once we know what the bill looks like, we’ll go through our processes,” a caucus spokesperson told The Sydney Herald.

“We simply agreed that it was premature to finalise our position.”

And they won’t have much time to either. The legislation is to be introduced this week, but with just five Senate sitting days scheduled before the May election, lawmakers won’t have much time to debate.

So activists, wary of how the bill may licence transphobia, are holding their breath.

“Discrimination against any child is always wrong,” Equality Australia, a national queer rights campaign group, said in a Facebook statement.

“The Morrison Government has said it will amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect same-gender attracted students from being expelled BUT any other discrimination against these students remains lawful, and trans and gender diverse students are being left out altogether.

“This amendment is particularly hurtful to trans kids all over the country. We stand with you. You deserve to be loved, respected, and safe wherever you happen to go to school.

“The Parliament must come together to oppose this bill and the government must go back to the drawing board to deliver laws that protect all of us, equally.”

It’s a dispiriting end to the cautious optimism sparked last week when Morrison told a Brisbane radio station that his administration will amend the bill to prevent religious schools from banning LGBT+ pupils.

Senator Simon Birmingham fuelled confusion when he flip-flopped on Scot Morrison’s earlier commitment. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

His remarks signalled a backtrack for the government, where officials had previously said that such an amendment was not possible and would have to be carried out through a separate piece of legislation called the Sex Discrimination Act.

“The bill we’re going to be taking through the parliament,” Morrison said, “we will have an amendment that will deal with that to ensure kids cannot be discriminated on that basis.

“I’ve been saying that for years. That’s always been my view.”

But further confusion has been sparked after finance leader and Senate leader Simon Birmingham confirmed that “the proposal is to repeal the exemption as it relates to sexual orientation, [but] it doesn’t go further than that”.

He told Radio National the following day that the Australian Law Reform Commission will examine for at least 12 months how best to clamp down on transphobia. But this means that, for a time, protections for LGBT+ young people will be incomplete.

Birmingham said that he wants to see “as much discrimination removed as possible while respecting” the ability of faith-led schools to, er, discrimination.