Law Council of Australia President, Morry Bailes said while the right to freedom of religious belief was absolute, the manifestation of religion should not be protected at the expense of other rights and freedoms.
“What is needed is a mechanism to protect our human rights in accordance with international human rights principles and a mechanism that appropriately balances competing rights such as freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination,” Mr Bailes said. “This can be best achieved via a National Human Rights Act, or alternatively, consolidated federal anti-discrimination legislation.”
The Law Council observed the Government has referred a number of recommendations from the review to the Australia Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for further consideration. Among those referred to the ALRC are questions regarding the rights of private religious schools to expel school children and teachers who hold views that conflict with church teachings. Mr Bailes said the Law Council was concerned that the question of whether gay students could be expelled from school had been referred for further review.
“Children should not be discriminated against, period,” Mr Bailes said. “Questions around the employment of teachers are more complex and are more appropriate to be reviewed by the ALRC, but any discrimination against children cannot be countenanced.”
However, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference spokesman on religious freedom, Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli, has said repeatedly there appeared to be some misunderstanding – or misrepresentation – of the position of Catholic and other faith-based schools.
“Catholic schools do not expel students simply on the grounds of sexual orientation or sexual identity,” Archbishop Comensoli said.
Archbishop Comensoli said the bishops remained willing to engage with parliamentarians to ensure any changes to laws around important protections for religious schools carefully balance the needs of students, staff and school communities.
In relation to any future religious discrimination act, Mr Bailes said the Law Council would need to see the detail before reaching a final position on any draft legislation.
“We strongly urge the Government to not rush the process and undertake further consultation before introducing a bill to Parliament,” Mr Bailes said.