On 19 March 2015 the Government of Tasmania quietly slipped the Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2015 into the Tasmanian House of Assembly.
Tasmania’s current anti-discrimination law is one of the most comprehensive in Australia, and it is widely considered to be the model for a modern, liberal secular democracy. While, among other attributes, it protects religious beliefs or affiliation and religious activity, it does not preserve the historically privileged position of religion like other Australian States.
The legislation has been a thorn in the side of religious conservatives from its inception. But, despite its strength, I haven’t been able to identify a single occasion on which a church-linked school had its tenets, beliefs or principles violated over the past decade and a half. But even if one could identify such an occasion, in this day and age, the equality and dignity of human beings must surely outweigh a historically misplaced reverence for religion.
The Bill would delete sections 55A and 55B of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas) (ADA).
Those sections currently require schools and school systems that are ‘conducted in accordance with tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion’ to apply to Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner for an exemption from the provisions of the ADA in relation to ‘religious belief, religious affiliation or religious activity’ if required.
Further, a school or school system is only entitled to lodge such an application ‘where there are more children seeking admission to a particular year group in a particular school in that schools system than there are places available to those children.’
The Bill would also insert a troubling new section 51A, which provides as follows:
51A. Admission of person as student based on religion
(1) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to admission of that other person as a student to an educational institution that is or is to be conducted in accordance with the tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion if the other person does not share those tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices.
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a person who is enrolled as a student at the educational institution referred to in that subsection.
(3) Subsection (1) does not permit discrimination on any grounds other than those specified in that subsection.
It’s curious the Tasmanian Government thought it was a good idea to introduce this Bill in light of the recent, and ongoing, scandals in the United States, in Indiana and a number of other conservative states peddling so-called ‘Religious Freedom Bills’.
There is an old saying: ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.’
This Bill has religious intolerance and prejudice written all over it and it directly authorises discrimination on the basis of one’s ‘religious belief or affiliation or religious activity’ in the education system.
It’s an unavoidable conclusion in light of the wording of the Bill that one of the intended targets of this hateful little scribble are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students and, the other, the children of LGBTI parents.
Knowingly and wilfully exposing children to religious discrimination for who they are, or who their parents are, must be a new low. Young LGBTI people are still shown to be more likely to experience bullying due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. As a consequence they suffer anxiety, depression and other mental health issues at a significant rate. Legalising religious intolerance targeting them is downright irresponsible and bordering on the pathological.
Admittedly, it’s beyond me why anyone, especially LGBTI parents, would want to enrol their children at a religious school?! However, there may be circumstances where geographical or other restrictions or considerations make a religious school the only viable option for a family.
In a modern, liberal secular democracy, the idea of educational institutions discriminating against children on the basis of religious beliefs makes me ill. Legislators who are willing to facilitate and enable such discrimination are failing their community and are not deserving of the high office they hold.
I call on the Tasmanian Government to end this outrage, withdraw this hateful and discriminatory Bill, and to serve all Tasmanians, instead of bigoted, vested interests, and attitudes that belong in centuries long past.