ACT Safe and Inclusive Schools (SAIS) Initiative, led by Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT, welcomes the changes to ACT discrimination laws which passed unanimously with cross-party support in the ACT Legislative Assembly on 27 November 2018.
The ACT’s Discrimination Act 1991 makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a range of protected attributes which include sex, gender identity, intersex status and sexuality. They also include age, race, disability, employment status, accommodation status, religious conviction, pregnancy, political conviction, profession, trade, occupation or calling, amongst others.
The new amendments limit the use of exceptions for all protected attributes in schools and educational institutions, while still allowing schools the right to serve specific religious communities.
These changes ensure that protections against discrimination based on these attributes now apply in all ACT schools.
The amended Discrimination Act 1991 continues to afford to individuals and religious bodies the freedom to hold, share and practice religious beliefs. As one of only two human rights jurisdictions in Australia, the ACT Human Rights Act 2004 also continues to provide additional, positive protections for freedom of religion, as well as processes for resolving questions of competing rights.
The changes represent an appropriate balancing of freedom of religion and the right to anti-discrimination protections, which is not only consistent with the provisions of the ACT Human Rights Act, but is also in line with community standards and expectations.
In mid-October 2018, data from a Fairfax – Ipsos survey showed that 74% of Australian voters do not support discrimination of students or teachers in schools based on sexual orientation. The ACT community has repeatedly demonstrated overwhelming support for an inclusive, welcoming and safe community for everyone, including our school communities.
The changes provide further guidance and clarity for religious schools and institutions in relation to student enrolment and staff employment by encouraging school communities that affiliate with or adhere to a specific religious ethos or tradition to:
- Clarify what the religious doctrines, tenets, beliefs and teachings are within its ethos or tradition;
- Articulate how these affect its enrolment and employment decisions and practices;
- Make this information publicly available to current and prospective students or employees.
ACT Safe and Inclusive Schools Initiative believes it is appropriate for schools to develop and make publicly available their own policy position in relation to staff and student matters. This provides a degree of transparency and clarity that will assist everyone in the community to make more informed decisions regarding the suitability of the school for education or employment.
It is the experience of the ACT Safe and Inclusive Schools Initiative that the vast majority of school leaders, parents/carers and students, in all systems, actively seek to eliminate prejudice, discrimination, harassment and violence from their school communities. Further, many religious schools and school systems around Australia have publicly stated they do not ever seek to use, and do not wish to rely on, exceptions to anti-discrimination laws as a means to protect the religious character and ethos of their school communities.
ACT Safe and Inclusive Schools Initiative is optimistic that ACT Schools will see the reform as an opportunity to reaffirm school values of inclusion and anti-discrimination, review policy frameworks to ensure inclusive practice is embedded, and have open conversations with students and families about what kind of community they want to be.