Subjects: Religious freedom review

BEN FORDHAM: Religious schools would be guaranteed the right to turn away gay students and teachers under proposed changes to anti-discrimination laws. That’s what we are being told today in Fairfax newspapers, but there are now question marks over that report, which I’ll get to in a moment. The proposal is part of a review into religious freedoms handed to the Government, but the Coalition is still formulating its response as we speak. Now, part of the report has been leaked and it recommends allegedly the right of schools to turn away gay students and teachers to be enshrined in the Sex Discrimination Act. This would also extend to gender and marital status, not just sexuality.

Now, I’m all for religious freedom, but I can’t respect institutions particularly schools that turn away children simply because they’re gay. The idea of a principal banning a student from attending a school because of who they are, quite frankly churns my stomach. It angers me to think that these children will grow up feeling unaccepted when in most cases they’ve had a hard enough time already, and look we went through the same-sex marriage debate, and we are sending a message that it’s OK for people to get married, but they can’t go to certain schools? Suicide rates are higher amongst gay teenagers and this sort of policy can lead to more children taking their own lives. Because being accepted at 13 or 14 means a whole lot more to people than being accepted at 33 or 34 years of age. And it’s one thing to not be accepted by your class mates, but when it’s the school principal or the school community rejecting you, it’s a whole other matter. My next guess doesn’t necessarily agree with my opinion, the Liberal MP and Special Minister of State Alex Hawke, says that religious schools should absolutely be able to discriminate against students and staff based on sexuality. He says ‘I don’t think it’s controversial’. Alex Hawke is on the line, good afternoon to you sir.

ALEX HAWKE: G’day Ben, how are you?

BEN FORDHAM: I’m pretty good, look I’m a bit confused by this, based on a story that’s just come out in The Australian which I’ll get to just in a moment but let me ask you this first of all – how can you tell if a young person is gay?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, that’s the point. I think this issue is a bit of a furphy from the Left. I think we are dealing with primary schools, where we don’t want our kids sexualised and we don’t want decisions made on their sexuality and this idea that there is discrimination in Australia in religious schools is false. There are no examples. There are some limited examples about parents and about teachers. But I think absolutely religious schools have the right to teach their religion at their schools and to employ people where they have a consistent view with their religion.

BEN FORDHAM: Should schools, any schools, be able to turn away students based on them being gay?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, the current law says they can under certain circumstances and you’re right in what you say in your presentation there. But there are complex situations at law and the intersection of rights. For example, one of the cases in Australia is where a parent had been interviewed by the school and was in a gay relationship, and their child started speaking about the gay relationship at school and that created an issue at the school which was a Christian school and the Christian school took that up. So, it wasn’t a straight discrimination against the child, it was about the whole nature of that relationship, and I think given Australia has public schools, it has independent schools, it has private schools, it also has religious-based schools. There ought to be an agreement between parents and the schools about what they’re doing when they choose to take their child to a religious school.

BEN FORDHAM: In the Bible it says ‘let us stop passing judgement on one another, instead make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister’, that’s Romans 14:13 and there are many other examples of similar passages. This would be the kind of policy that passes judgment and puts up obstacles wouldn’t it?

ALEX HAWKE: Yeah absolutely and no human is perfect, and none of us are, and we all make mistakes, and we have to live our lives the best way that we can and some of us lead our lives as best we can according to the Christian principles, and I don’t think that’s inappropriate. What the Government’s review is about, is about protecting people’s right to practise their own religion in our society and there is an assault on this over time, and you can see it. Whether it’s the removal of nativity scenes from shopping centres, I think you talk about that on this program every year. There’s this push constantly to remove religion from real life and also from our schooling system, where I believe and I think the Government believes we should have religious-based schools, where people are able to choose to take their children for religious instruction.

BEN FORDHAM: But just to be clear, if one of those religious schools has a young student coming in wanting to go to that school, and that student happens to be gay, they shouldn’t be allowed to turn that kid away?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, look I wouldn’t support that, and I don’t like that concept, and I don’t think most people would. However, if there is a controversy and this is what comes up – in Australia this doesn’t happen – but overseas, sometimes parents will deliberately take their child there and create an issue with the school, saying ‘you have to teach them the way I want them taught’, and that’s where I think the intersection of the law and rights comes into place.

BEN FORDHAM: I don’t know whether you know what the Government’s response on this is going to be.

ALEX HAWKE: No. Not yet

BEN FORDHAM: They’ve had Philip Ruddock’s report since May.

ALEX HAWKE: Yep, not yet.

BEN FORDHAM: But I notice in The Australian this afternoon, they say ‘The Australian has obtained sections of the Ruddock Review and has confirmed that the report in Fairfax media this morning is incorrect and that in fact one of the focuses of the review was on trying to formalise and restrict the ability of religious schools to reject gay staff or students.’

ALEX HAWKE: Well, see that’s the problem. The Government doesn’t have – the Government has received the report, that’s through the Attorney-General – but members of the Government haven’t been shown a copy and my point this morning was, and I think we’d have a lot of agreement between us on this is that sometimes in our society at the moment, the Left confect these issues. I mean they’re trying to say there’s this huge problem in Australia with turning away gay kids – this doesn’t happen Ben. I know all of my religious schools in my electorate, there’s not one school that’s ever turned away a kid for being gay. The Catholic system came out today and said ‘we are not aware of this’, one of the educators said ‘in 20 years’. So, we are constantly arguing about these things and I believe it’s quite deliberate by some sections of the Left to undermine proper, private religious considerations.

BEN FORDHAM: And you can understand why people get concerned about it. I’ve got young children, I know you’ve got children as well, and the idea of one of them being turned away from school because of their sexuality, I mean I can only imagine how furious I’d be if that was to happen. But, as you say there are no example of it happening and based on what The Australian is saying this afternoon, there’s a suggestion that the opposite might be happening as a result of this report. So look, we’ll leave it there and hope it’s something we don’t need to worry about going forward.

ALEX HAWKE: No, thanks Ben. It’s an important issue, I’d only just add that religious freedom is an important right in Australia and we’re going to keep trying to make sure that people can practise their faith in their school, community and churches the way they want to.

BEN FORDHAM: Good on you, we haven’t had a lot of conversations on the air, so let’s have more!

ALEX HAWKE: Thanks Ben, cheers.

BEN FORDHAM: Alex Hawke, the Special Minister of State.