Religious freedom: Scott Morrison under pressure to deliver promise to protect gay students

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under renewed pressure to deliver on his three-year-old promise to protect gay students from being expelled from faith-based schools, as the debate over religious freedoms intensifies.

Mr Morrison on Thursday introduced the government's long-awaited bill to shield people of faith from discrimination, declaring Australians shouldn't be "cancelled, persecuted or vilified" for expressing religious beliefs.

He told parliament people of faith were concerned about the lack of protection against the "prevalence of cancel culture in Australia".

The government argued the legislation would provide a shield for people of faith, but equality advocates, the Greens and some Liberal MPs feared some contentious provisions could open the door to discrimination against certain groups, including gay and lesbian people.

While those concerns persist, the focus of the religious freedoms debate shifted back to old ground - Mr Morrison's promise in 2018 to amend discrimination laws to make clear faith-based schools couldn't expel gay students.

The move is currently tied up in an Australian Law Reform Commission review, which isn't due to report back until 12 months after the government's religious discrimination bill passes parliament.

Moderate Liberals MPs - including Trent Zimmerman, Bridget Archer and Dave Sharma - are pushing for quicker action on the exemption.

Mr Morrison on Thursday emphasised "nothing" in the new bill allowed for "discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity".

However, that doesn't account for the remaining exemption under the Sex Discrimination Act which makes it possible for faith-based schools to expel gay students.

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Attorney-General Michaelia Cash faced questions from Labor and the Greens in parliament on Thursday on why Mr Morrison was yet to deliver on his promise.

Senator Cash would not be drawn on Mr Morrison's promise, but said both she and the Prime Minister had made it clear to the law reform commission their "very clear expectation" was that no student should be expelled from a school because of their sexual identity.

She noted Labor had supported the exemption while in government.

"The Labor Party actually agrees with those exemptions. You did nothing whilst you were in government to change them," she said.

Senator Michaelia Cash. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Senator Michaelia Cash. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Mr Morrison said late on Thursday the commission's review was ongoing, but his position remained gay students should not be expelled.

Earlier on Thursday, assistant Attorney-General Amanda Stoker confirmed faith-based schools would be able to refuse employment to a gay teacher under the new bill.

She noted schools would be required to make public their position on "religious beliefs or activities" and how they would be enforced, which meant the community and prospective staff would be clear about where it stood.

"Now for many people, they'll look at that [school's position] and go, 'Well, you know, that's pretty intense. That might not be somewhere I want to work'," she said.

The new legislation is set to be debated next week, before it is referred to a Senate inquiry for scrutiny.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus described the looming Senate probe as "rushed" and "inadequate", after he had called for a special committee, comprising members from both houses, to be set up to scrutinise the legislation.

Mr Dreyfus said Labor would review the bill and consult with the community before deciding its final position.

Labor supports the principle of adding religious protections to the nation's suite of anti-discrimination laws, which cover sex, age, gender and disability.

But Mr Dreyfus said they should not remove existing protections against other forms of discrimination.

This story Pressure on PM over gay students vow first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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