Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has vowed to stop students from being expelled for their sexuality or gender identity by religious schools.
In an unexpected turnaround, the right-wing leader who has long been upfront about his evangelical Christian faith, promised to stop faith-based schools from discriminating against pupils, parents and guardians.
Morrison made the surprise remarks that left fellow lawmakers and religious activists stunned to Brisbane’s B105.3 radio station on Thursday (3 February).
He was asked to share his thoughts on Citipointe College’s now-withdrawn anti-LGBT+ student enrolment contract.
It required families to sign enrolment paperwork that said being LGBT+ is “immoral” and compared it to incest, bestiality and paedophilia.
“No, I don’t support that,” Morrison told the station. “My kids go to a Christian school here in Sydney, and I wouldn’t want my school doing that either.”
Morrison said he will introduce amendments to the Religious Discrimination Bill – which has been a thorny issue for both faith groups and LGBT+ rights campaigners – to prevent religious schools from discriminating in this way.
The bill, introduced last November, would allow faith-based organisations like churches, schools and workplaces to offset anti-discrimination laws, as long as their “statements of belief” don’t “threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group”.
“The bill we’re going to be taking through the parliament,” Morrison added, “we will have an amendment that will deal with that to ensure kids cannot be discriminated on that basis.
“I’ve been saying that for years. That’s always been my view.”
He added said that schools “should be able to teach kids” in a way that aligns with their faith, from Christianity to Islam.
The Religious Discrimination Bill, he said, would protect Australians “whether they have a faith or they don’t”.
Morrison’s comments signal a fallback by his government, whose hardline Liberal Party MPs have pushed the Religious Discrimination Bill in parliament.
Federal attorney general Michaelia Cash only recently claimed that scrapping the exemption from the bill was not feasible. Instead, she said, the Sex Discrimination Act would be amended to shield LGBT+ students – in 12 months, that is.
But it has faced an uncertain future, with moderate Liberals saying they will not vote for it unless the exemption allowing faith-based schools to turn away queer students is removed.
Morrison has supported better protecting queer students since 2018, but policy-makers struggled to roll out reforms at the time that wasn’t shot with loopholes that would have allowed schools to discriminate LGBT+ people in different ways instead.
Christian groups say Scott Morrison has ‘betrayed’ them
Choosing a pretty weird hill to die on, Christian groups recoiled in rage at Scott Morrison’s vow to close religious school exemptions.
“Scott Morrison has betrayed the foundation of the Religious Discrimination Bill,” said Greg Bondar, FamilyVoice NSW director, in a social media statement.
Bondar said it is a “sad day for all Australians” – certainly not for students expelled for being LGBT+, however – and that it has “put religious freedom and free speech at risk”.
Equality Australia, the nation’s top queer rights group, welcomed Morrison’s comments with cautious optimism and urged his administration to “scrap the flawed” bill altogether.
“The prime minister made a commitment in 2018 to remove the outdated carve-outs in national anti-discrimination laws which allow discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in religious schools,” said the group’s legal director Ghassan Kassisieh in a statement.
“This reform is long overdue, and better protections must apply to both teachers and students.
“But the Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill will invite exactly this type of practice in employment across faith-based organisations, from schools, aged-care services, emergency accommodation and hospitals.
“The prime minister may be putting out one small fire, but his Religious Discrimination Bill will unleash a firestorm of discrimination in religious organisations against anyone that holds a different belief from their faith-based employer – even when they can faithfully do the job that is required of them.”