Exemptions in discrimination law: ‘safe spaces’ to act out prejudice towards LGBTIQ people

Jun 24, 2024

The denigration of the humanity and self-worth of a group of people is enabled by social and legal licensing of the expression of prejudice and hatred towards that group. Australian discrimination laws have been plated up like an episode of Masterchef, with optional extras for religious groups to act out their chosen prejudice. These are 21st Century witch-hunts against LGBTIQ people, sanctioned by governments.

Australia’s Federal Discrimination Laws, the Marriage Act and the WA State Equal Opportunity Act (1984) and others, license religious groups to perpetrate their choice of discrimination against primarily LGBTIQ people, if it’s disguised as a ‘chosen religious belief’. The ‘exemption’ is a ‘licence to discriminate’, a ‘safe space’ where the lives of LGBTIQ people can be denigrated and destroyed. It absolves the perpetrators of real accountability. Victims are hung out to dry.

In real life: a teacher is sacked because she invited colleagues to her wedding; a teacher is sidelined for tenure because she is unwed and has a child; a teacher is sidelined because he is in a defacto relationship; a boy is told he cannot take his boyfriend to the school dance; a girl is told not to speak of her two mothers in class; the marriage of a couple of 60 years is not respected by aged care providers; people self-harm because they internalise messages that they are worthless; people are sacked because of who they love and become homeless.

Australia has stepped up in some ways towards creating a less abusive society as evidenced by e.g. the Australian Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-2017), the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ Hate Crimes (2023), decriminalisation of gay relationships and marriage for same sex couples. These Commissions and numbers of Australian Law Reform Commission Reports provide ample evidence of the need for urgent legislative change to remove all barriers to respect the humanity and full equality of LGBTIQ people and their families.

But still, Federal and WA State governments continue to licence religious organisations to act out prejudice towards LGBTIQ people through exemptions. Even the Marriage Act permits religious groups to not recognise same sex marriage, in spite of the vast majority of Australians who support genuine equality.

In April 2024, after 7 years of incumbency the WA Government wrote: ‘The State Government remains 100 per cent committed to new equal opportunity legislation. Policy and drafting work is continuing to develop a new Equal Opportunity Act and to ban conversion practices. This includes engaging closely with stakeholders and monitoring the progress of proposed Commonwealth Government reforms, ahead of introducing legislation in 2025 under a re-elected Cook Labor Government.’ This reads like Yes Minister: ‘in the fullness of time, trust us’. Words are hollow; only action evidences commitment.

Why are governments reneging on repealing exemptions? It is not just the arcane calculus of seeking votes, even from bad actors; not even cowardice as some politicians have claimed; not just that religious groups seek to protect their tax exemptions and to bond congregations through prejudice against LGBTIQ people.

The core reason is that prejudice toward LGBTIQ people lurks at the heart of Australian governments’ policy. If prejudice was absent, these exemptions would have been repealed in full, years ago.

There are reports that some Australian governments are considering amending exemptions such that students in schools cannot be targeted, but LGBTIQ employees of schools, employees and clients of aged care and community services operated by religious groups can continue to be subjected to pitiless creeds. This would be an abject rejection of Australian values of fairness and commitments to equality. It would confirm that governments are basing policy on extreme cynicism and extreme prejudice toward LGBTIQ people. It would void trust. They cannot profess support for equality while maintaining exemptions. You cannot be a little bit equal, just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant. If governments choose a continuing partnership with perpetrators, hypocrisy will be in full view.

These modern day witch-hunts against LGBTIQ people and others plainly demonstrate the bankrupt ethics of governments who licence them and religious groups who choose to perpetrate them. Exemptions exist because religious groups, who choose to use them, know that their behaviour is not condoned by most Australians. Governments know this too, but continue to licence these witch-hunts.

By no means all religious groups or people of religious faith use or want these exemptions. The few who do cause extensive harm. Australian LGBTIQ people, their families and the millions who support them ‘expect’ full unconditional equality under the law, without compromise. Nothing less.

It is time to establish a robust Independent Inquiry into the abuse and denigration of LGBTIQ people and their families by religious groups and its enabling by governments. A spotlight needs to be shone deep into the heart of this darkness that has destroyed and distorted so many lives.

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