Majority of voters reject Coalition’s proposal to allow discriminatory religious statements, poll suggests

Three-quarters reject key religious discrimination bill clause while almost 65% say it should be illegal for religious schools to expel LGBTQ+ students

A majority of voters oppose a key plank of the Coalition’s religious discrimination bill that would allow discriminatory speech and say they want greater protections for LGBTQ+ students and teachers, a new poll suggests.

The YouGov Galaxy poll of 1,030 voters, conducted for lobby group Just Equal, suggests the public doesn’t back the bill which some government MPs oppose due to the potential impact on marginalised students.

The poll comes after Citipointe Christian College urged families to sign an enrolment contract that included asking them to agree “homosexual acts” were immoral. That controversy caused Labor and Liberal moderate MPs to warn against waving the bill through federal parliament when it resumes on Tuesday.

The poll suggests 77% of voters oppose the “statements of belief” clause that would mean statements grounded in religious belief do not breach discrimination laws banning speech that humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed people based on protected attributes.

Some 64% of those polled said it should be against the law for religious schools to expel or refuse to enrol students who were bisexual, gay, lesbian or transgender, including children of same-sex couples; while 62% said the same of dismissing a teacher for their sexuality.

Opposition to allowing harmful speech in the name of religion was higher among Labor voters (81%) as was support for prohibiting schools from discriminating in enrolment (75%).

On Friday, two parliamentary inquiries into the religious discrimination bill are due to report before a short parliamentary sitting in which Labor support would probably be required to pass the proposed legislation.

In both committees, the Coalition and Labor are collaborating with the aim of writing a joint report, but Labor could go further in expressing significant concerns about the statements of belief clause and expanded hiring and firing powers over teachers. The Greens oppose the bill.

But even with in-principle support from the committees, which are chaired by Liberal senator Sarah Henderson and National MP Anne Webster, the government would still need to force a vote on a bill that has become extremely contentious in its own ranks.

Labor’s holding position, adopted by caucus in November, is that the government must “deliver on its three-year-old commitment to protect LGBT students from discrimination”, suggesting it may make amendments.

But Labor could delay a final verdict until the government has responded to the committees’ reports in the hope that divisions on the Coalition side grow.

Three Liberal MPs have reserved their position and a further four – Angie Bell, Katie Allen, Fiona Martin, and Dave Sharma – have called for LGBTQ+ students to be protected from being expelled in the same package as the religious discrimination bill.

In answers to the committees’ questions on notice, the attorney general’s department revealed it did work on drafting to remove the provision from the Sex Discrimination Act that allows gay students to be expelled, which would implement Michaelia Cash’s purported deal with Bell and the other MPs.

But in December, Cash appeared to renege on that by saying protections for students would have to wait at least 12 months for a separate review process.

Allen also commissioned work from academic Liam Elphick about how the statements of belief clause, if retained, could be softened by ensuring it no longer overrides state discrimination laws.

Opponents say the case for the religious discrimination bill has been weakened by one of Queensland’s largest independent schools asking families to sign an enrolment contract that includes asking them to agree “homosexual acts” are immoral, listing them along with bestiality, incest and paedophilia as “offensive to God”.

The “statement of faith” required for enrolment at Citipointe Christian College also includes statements that imply transgender students will be recognised only by their “biological sex” at the school – that students should identify “with the gender that God bestowed”.

Labor MP Graham Perrett, the deputy chair of the human rights committee considering the bill, told Guardian Australia that contract “might focus the mind of all 227 politicians about what this bill might mean for multi-faith and multicultural communities”.

Perrett noted that every state and territory except New South Wales and South Australia already had some form of protection against religious discrimination, but the case of Citipointe “will certainly focus the mind about this legislation the prime minister personally introduced”.

Allen said her support for the religious discrimination bill was “conditional on protection of gay and trans students’ rights” and removing the section of the SDA allowing their expulsion would be “critical to that support”.

“The Brisbane school [Citipointe Christian College] highlights how problematic statements of belief can be,” she told Guardian Australia.

Bell said Citipointe’s decision demonstrated that “for many years, religious schools have preserved the ability to terminate a child’s enrolment based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy”.

Bell said she would continue to negotiate to ensure children were treated on merit not sexual or gender identity.

“A child should be able to attend any Australian education institution without hindrance or judgment,” she said, urging Citipointe college to “focus on the education of children and fostering a positive environment, where every child feels safe”.

A spokesperson for Just Equal Australia, Brian Greig, said the Morrison government “must reassess its ideological push for this divisive bill and the opposition must recognise the strong objections to this bill from Labor voters”.

“Australians do not support special privileges for religious people to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws,” he said. “Nor do they support a bill that allows people to discriminate against others in the name of faith.”

Greig said the bill must not be rushed through parliament in the “chaotic environment” of the last few sitting days before the election.

“This bill must be withdrawn and rewritten to remove its unwanted, harmful content.”


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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