Dave Kelly: Religious belief should never be blank cheque to hurt others

Dave KellyThe West Australian
Religion Christianity concept. Man holding and reading the holy Christian Bible.
Camera IconReligion Christianity concept. Man holding and reading the holy Christian Bible. Credit: ijeab - stock.adobe.com

Most people are surprised that in WA religious schools have the legal right to sack a teacher (or any staff member) for having sex outside of marriage, for living in a de facto relationship, for being pregnant, for having an abortion, for being gay, for having an affair and the list goes on.

Imagine a young, unmarried teacher who falls pregnant. Her options are to keep the baby or have a termination. But the pregnancy itself and the options she has all threaten her employment at her religious school. If the pregnancy is discovered, she could be sacked. If she has the baby, she could be sacked. And if she has a termination she could be sacked. In any ordinary workplace in Australia sacking that woman would be illegal but, in a WA religious school, that is not the case.

Religious schools have similar legal rights over their students. Students can be asked to leave for falling pregnant or for being gay.

The Telethon Kids Institute says about 10 per cent of students identify as something other than heterosexual. These kids at religious schools can be subjected to teachings that say who they are is the work of the devil, or that being gay will send you to hell.

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Imagine a queer student who eats their lunch in a toilet cubicle every day because they have been told to be ashamed of who they are. They fear being bullied or expelled if they are honest about who they are.

What is more shocking is religious schools actually use these powers. Some cases make the news but in most cases staff and students, knowing they have few legal rights, just live in fear of being caught and go quietly when found out.

All this is legal because in WA our Equal Opportunity Act has exemptions for religious schools. When the Act passed in 1984 it was a leader in making discrimination illegal in a whole range of areas. But to get the legislation through the conservative Upper House of State Parliament the religious exemptions had to be included.

Forty years on the religious exemptions have well and truly passed their used-by date. They need to go and should go when WA’s Attorney General introduces legislation this year to give effect to recommendations made following the recent review of the Equal Opportunities Act.

It is the prospect of these exemptions being removed that was at the heart of the views expressed by Mark Spencer of the Christian Schools Australia and Abdullah Khan from the Islamic Schools Association in their opinion piece published in The West Australian earlier this month.

They say religious schools are under “siege” and that “hiring and firing decisions are integral to preserving the character” of these schools. They go on to say that for staff that don’t meet a school’s values the “best option for the employee is to seek a change in their employment”.

They make their case in the name of religious freedom and surprisingly in the name of giving religious schools “the fair go Australia is all about”.

In 21st-century Australia, religious belief should never be a blank cheque to hurt others. There are many parts of the world where religious beliefs mean homosexuality is illegal and even punishable by death. Women can still be stoned for adultery on our planet. The extreme legislation in the US today around abortion is a stark example of where religious belief can lead to harmful outcomes.

Religious organisations, like any other organisation in Australia, should always be expected to be accountable for their actions rather than simply hide behind a blanket claim of religious belief.

What about the wellbeing of students who are in the 10 per cent identified by the Telethon Kids Institute? If a school preaches being queer is a sin and will send a student to hell their life can be scarred forever.

In 2022 the Telethon Kids Institute released suicide prevention guidelines for organisations providing services to LGBTIQA+ young people. TKI’s recommendations read like the exact opposite of what is presented in a homophobic religious school.

Every school should be a safe place for all students regardless of sexuality. We are not serious about kids’ mental health if we just turn a blind eye. Ten per cent of kids matter.

We can and should maintain a strong legal right to freedom of religion but without impinging on basic principles that protect everyone from discrimination based on who we are. The current Equal Opportunity Act in WA does not do that. The time for change is now.

Dave Kelly is the Labor Member for Bassendean.

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