Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan told Sky News this morning he expected laws prohibiting religious schools from excluding students on the basis of their sexual orientation to be introduced to parliament within days, but remained coy about whether those laws would extend to teachers.
Tehan said protecting LGBTIQ students from discrimination was a top priority for the Coalition as MPs return to work in Canberra after a three-week break.
The announcement follows media reports last Wednesday which leaked information from the long-awaited religious freedom inquiry report, which is yet to be released by the Government.
Fairfax reported that the inquiry – chaired by former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock – had called for the federal Sex Discrimination Act to be amended to codify the capacity of religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender or relationship status.
But Ruddock later claimed his recommendations were designed to narrow the exemptions currently available in law.
“We want to deal with the issue of students … I expect that something will be done over the coming days on that,” Tehan said today.
The minister acknowledged the Government also needed to investigate granting teachers the same legislative support, but he said that was a “complicated matter”.
“That’s obviously something we want to look at as part of the broader Ruddock review,” Tehan said.
The move to prohibit discrimination against students in schools has support from Labor and the Greens, as well as independent senator Derryn Hinch, who today called on the Government to refuse funding to any religious school which discriminates against gay students or teachers.
Tehan’s comments follow Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement over the weekend that the Government would strengthen discrimination laws to remove any opportunity for schools to discriminate.
In a statement, Morrison said his government did not support the expulsion of students from religious non-state schools on the basis of their sexuality and would be making amendments “as soon as practicable” to enforce such view.
Leading politics and religion analyst, Professor Marion Maddox from Macquarie University, described Morrison’s move as a “striking development” in the PM’s handling of his party’s conservative wing.
She told InDaily ahead of her upcoming public oration in Adelaide that the Government’s announcement signified its acceptance that a person’s sexual orientation was not a lifestyle choice.
“It’s an acknowledgment that being gay is just part of who you are and not as the conservative wing of his party and some conservative Christians would like to have it,” Maddox said.
“I also see it as Morrison having a blind panic before the Wentworth by-election.”
Maddox said the New South Wales seat of Wentworth, vacated recently by outgoing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, had strongly supported same-sex marriage during last year’s marriage equality postal vote.
Morrison’s response to the Ruddock review controversy, she said, was, therefore, a case of “fairly targeted issue management” before Saturday’s by-election.
“It’s just one of those issues that blew up at the wrong moment, had to be shut down and the repercussions will keep on rolling for quite a while because I don’t think the conservative wing is going to be very happy with that conclusion,” Maddox said.
“It (religious freedom) is just going to be one of those fights that just keep going on and on, like climate change and the marriage debate itself. It will come up again soon enough.”
Maddox will use a public address in Adelaide next week to argue against the Federal Government’s recent $4.6 billion boost in spending on Catholic and Independent schools.
The funding package has been widely criticised by public education groups, who argue they have been short-changed by the Federal Government.
“The thing that is particularly unusual in Australia is that segregation in religious schools is not just allowed but it’s supported by enormous injections of public money,” Maddox said.
“For reasons that have little to do with religious commitment and more with politics we have forgotten the secular values that motivated our system’s founders.”
Maddox said Australia’s education system had become “one of the most religiously and economically segregated systems in the western world”, driven by successive Federal Governments’ increased spending on the independent school system.
She also argued South Australian public schools, which she said were once the national leaders in secular education in the early colonial days, were today further segregating students by inviting volunteers to present their religious views to students.
“There are two problems with having volunteers come in to teach children about their own religious tradition – one is that the children are split up for those classes and so you only learn about your religious traditions, you don’t learn about anybody else’s.
“The other is that for many children that moment of when you separate into your different religious groups might be their first experience in their whole life of being segregated on the basis of a personal attribute.
“They are being taught by volunteers who may know something about their subject or they may just have a lot of love of Jesus that they want to share.
“We send our students to school to learn maths, we expect the teacher to have expertise in that subject and how to relate that to children and in a lot of schools, scripture has become the joke subject and not taught in an adequate manner.”
Maddox said she was in support of public schools teaching religion as part of their curriculum, provided all religious views were considered.
She will deliver the Catherine Helen Spence Oration at the Unitarian Church in Norwood on Friday, October 26.
– with AAP
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