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A leaked report that has recommended schools be able to bar gay students from attending has been slammed as “utter crap” and “silly” by politicians and discrimination by human rights campaigners.
But the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said a religious rights inquiry simply enshrines “existing law”.
The Ruddock review into religious freedom has been sitting on the PM’s desk since May but parts of it have now been reported ahead of its official release by Fairfax Media.
There had been suggestions it was being kept under wraps until after the Wentworth by-election later this month. Malcolm Turnbull’s former electorate has a high number of LGBTI voters.
Former Liberal minister Phillip Ruddock, who chaired the review, said the right of religious schools to turn away gay students and teachers should be enshrined in the Sex Discrimination Act.
“To some school communities, cultivating an environment and ethos which conforms to their religious beliefs is of paramount importance,” the review said.
“To the extent that this can be done in the context of appropriate safeguards for the rights and mental health of the child, the panel accepts their right to select, or preference, students who uphold the religious convictions of that school community.”
The recommendations, however, have not gone as far as some religious leaders hoped. Nevertheless, critics have said the report is less about the freedom to practice religion and more about discrimination by faith groups.
Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Anna Brown, said: “Australians voted yes to fairness and equality, not more discrimination against LGBT people. The Government should be protecting kids in schools, not allowing them to be turned away for be gay or trans”.
Green Senator Mehreen Faruqi was direct: “This is just utter crap. No religious school should be able to get away with discrimination, let alone with public funding”.
PM Scott Morrison played down the report’s significance on Wednesday.
“It is existing law,” he told reporters on the NSW Central Coast. “We’re not proposing to change that law to take away that existing arrangement.”
While it may be existing Commonwealth law and the law in many states, neither Tasmania nor Queensland allow schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexuality.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he couldn’t believe the prime minister hadn’t immediately ruled out the “silly” proposal.
“The fact is every child is entitled to human dignity. We shouldn’t even be having this debate,” Mr Shorten told reporters in Melbourne, demanding the government release the report.
The Ruddock inquiry was convened in the wash up of the same-sex marriage debate that saw gay couples legally allowed to wed from January this year.
That legislation enshrined the right of religious ministers to not officiate at the weddings of same-sex partners and said that religious institutions did not have to provide services to a ceremony, such as the hire of a hall.
But anti-marriage advocates insisted the rights of those with strong religious convictions were being trampled on with the much quoted example of a baker who could be compelled to produce a wedding cake for a gay couple.
However, the review appeared to have stop short of allowing businesses to opt out of serving LGBTI people on religious grounds, as this would “unnecessarily encroach on other human rights” and “may cause significant harm to vulnerable groups” reported Fairfax.
The review also rejected any changes to the marriage act, a dedicated “religious freedom” act or that civil celebrants should be able to opt out of same-sex ceremonies.
Senate candidate for the Australian Conservatives and former Australian Christian Lobby head Lyle Shelton said the review was about religious communities being allowed to preserve their ethos.
“It is not about rejecting anyone. The Yes (to same-sex marriage) Campaign said redefining marriage would have ‘no consequences’ for other peoples’ beliefs. They should stick to that. Live and let live,” he said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Long-time marriage equality advocate and spokesman for campaign group Just Equal, Rodney Croome, said any school that took public money shouldn’t be free to bar gay teachers or students.
“The Ruddock inquiry recommendations are direct and shameful assault on the dignity and equality of LGBTI people and we will oppose their implementation tooth and nail.
“Schools should be places of learning, not breeding grounds of prejudice.”