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Religious schools discriminate against the vulnerable

  • 04 March 2013

She was in year nine when people started to suspect she was gay. At about that time, she says, a lesbian teacher at her Catholic school 'was kicked out', and 'people targeted me even more'. 'The teachers wouldn't do anything ... one actually joined in,' she says. Years later this former student was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and placed on medication.

Such were the experiences of one young lesbian woman, recounted in a senate inquiry submission calling for an end to exemptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against students who are transgender, gay or pregnant.

The Labor-Greens Senate committee has recommended such exemptions remain. Which means that unlike a public school, it may be lawful for a religious school to expel or discipline a student on the basis of gender identity, marital or relationship status, potential pregnancy, pregnancy, religion or sexual orientation.

The senate committee has attempted to find a middle ground. It says it's okay for students to be discriminated against in religious high schools, so long as they know and understand the school's discrimination policies and whether exemptions would operate when they enrol at the high school.

Essentially, the committee has put forward a 'freedom of contract' approach emphasising choice, compromise and pluralism: if you don't wish to adhere to the values of a religious school, choose another school. This 'choice principle' is not without merit. It represents an attempted compromise in a contentious clash of rights, and works to some extent when applied to employment in the religious sector: if you don't like it, don't work there.

But the recommendation overlooks a crucial fact: most students don't choose which high school they go to (let alone whether they will ever fall pregnant or identify as gay later in their schooling life), their parents do. So arguably, the minor isn't consenting to anything. This is an important fact when you consider they are essentially being asked to forfeit their legal rights.

Anti-discrimination law exists in part to protect the rights of vulnerable members of the community. In this regard, it is hard to ignore that first and foremost we are dealing with the legal rights of minors.

Further, some studies suggest homosexual teenagers are 14 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. Transgenderism is viewed a medical and biological phenomenon. In light of this it's hard to view discrimination on the basis of gender identity as anything but cruel in most