Federal MPs are using the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia to justify a “systematic dismantling” of religious rights, the principal of a Perth Christian school has warned.
In a rebuke of proposed laws to end discrimination against gay students, Hillside Christian College’s Stephen Lamont told a parliamentary inquiry that the “ad hoc” and “overtly political” legislation was “nothing short of an attack on religious practice”.
He said changes would “seriously weaken” the quality of education provided at his “unashamedly Christian” Forrestfield school.
“It seems same-sex marriage laws have provided a philosophic ‘green light’ and carte blanche to continue, and increase, religious discrimination,” Mr Lamont wrote in a submission to the inquiry.
“Religious freedom now is a political football that disenfranchises religious adherents of their rights.”
The major political parties backed the removal of religious exemptions that allowed faith-based schools to turn away LGBTI students, but negotiations broke down in November.
The Federal Government could not break the political impasse in time for the new school year because it refused to budge on provisions allowing non-State schools to enforce rules such as compelling students to attend church services.
The Coalition was expected to refer the issue to the Australian Law Reform Commission for further consideration.
As cross-party MPs sought to find a solution at a parliamentary committee hearing in Sydney on Thursday night, Attorney-General’s Department officials said it would be possible to take a narrower approach to outlawing discrimination and solely protect gay students from being expelled from religious schools.
LGBTI advocate Rodney Croome told the hearing that the culture in religious schools in Tasmania, where religious exemptions affecting schools were abolished almost 20 years ago, had “improved immensely” and he knew of no related complaints.
But Mr Lamont said there were more than 1000 schools in WA that people who did not agree with his school’s position could choose. “Parents are not cajoled, coerced or expected to enrol their child at our college,” he said.
The debate comes as Attorney-General Christian Porter prepares to introduce changes arising from the Government’s Ruddock religious freedoms review to Parliament.
Equality Australia, which played a key role in the Yes campaign for same-sex marriage, said research showed almost three-quarters of Australians supported the removal of the “antiquated” exemptions.
“School students should be able to focus on classes, education, and building friendships,” Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown said.
“They should not be living in fear of mistreatment because of who they or their families are.”