Groups claiming to want to keep exemptions in anti-discrimination law to allow religious schools to fire LGBTI staff, or kick out LGBTI students, claim that it is "fake news" to say schools already use these powers. Case studies from the independent education union suggest otherwise.
A majority-Labor parliamentary committee this week recommended the government remove the exemptions for students, and consider removing the exemptions for teachers, but stated in the report that many of the schools that gave evidence to the committee had never had cause to fire teachers or remove students.
"Our schools would not expel a student just because of their sexual orientation," Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) archbishop Peter Comensoli told the committee. The ACBC is the permanent assembly of the Bishops of Australia.
But the Independent Education Union of Australia, which represents staff in non-government schools, included in its submission 16 different instances where teachers had been discriminated against in religious schools.
Two female teachers who were in a same-sex relationship but worked at Catholic schools were seen together by a student, and reported this to a bishop. According to the union, one teacher was told to move to another school. She subsequently resigned and took a job at a public school.
A relief teacher at a Baptist school, who happened to be a former student at the school, was identified as gay and was no longer given shifts at the school.
A lesbian teacher at a Catholic primary school was told she could not enrol her child at the school she also taught at, according to the union.
"Employer said it was not acceptable that the child attended the same school as the school at which the teacher taught and the teacher would need to be transferred," the union said. "Enrolling the child at the same school ‘unacceptably’ highlighted the lesbian nature of the relationship between the teacher and the parent of the child. Ultimately, the teacher agreed to resign and received a substantial payment."
At an Islamic school, a lesbian teacher was denied parental leave to care for her pregnant partner. The union has said the school informed it that "dismissal will follow".
When the government and Labor first started debating the possibility of removing the exemptions from law, 34 Sydney Anglican schools wrote to education minister Dan Tehan asking that the exemptions remain to allow schools to keep their "ethos and values". In a letter provided to the committee, an unnamed gay teacher at one of these schools said the letter had left them in an impossible situation.
"My principal has made the same judgement call on behalf of our staff inferring that LGBTIQ teachers are not welcome and is fighting for the right to continue to discriminate against me and others like me within religious schools," they said.
"So here I am in an impossible situation. I am in a position of leadership within a school I love, but where I know I am not welcome. Where many people, if they knew my true self, would want to see me exiled.
"At the end of the day I am still a Christian and I want to be here. My Christianity is a choice, my sexuality is not."
Several of the schools have reportedly apologised to staff and students for the letter asking for exemptions to stay. And 46 principals from religious schools have sent a letter to the prime minister saying faith-based schools should not be able to fire LGBTI staff or kick out LGBTI students.
In a dissenting report, government senators on the committee looking into the exemptions argued the government should instead legislate to protect religious freedom, and allow religious schools "to operate in accordance with the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their particular faith".
The government's response to the Philip Ruddock-led review into religious freedom is "in its final stages" according to attorney-general Christian Porter, but he said the issue of hiring and firing teachers was "very complicated".
"People shouldn't be discriminated against in their employment or their attendance at school, but also religious groups and particularly schools should be able to organise themselves and their staff in accordance with their doctrine and their faith," Porter told the ABC this week. "And perhaps the way in which the balance has been struck previously, now is in need of change. "
Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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