Better balance needed in State’s equal opportunity laws

Helping to protect students, patients and employees from unfair treatment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity is at the heart of a range of reforms proposed for South Australia’s equal opportunity laws.

In the latest report from the independent South Australian Law Reform Institute, based at the University of Adelaide, the Institute has made 11 recommendations aimed at improving the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The recommendations also recognise the right of religious bodies to administer churches and schools in line with their religious beliefs.

While South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act (1984) makes it unlawful for people to be treated unfairly due to their sex, sexual orientation or gender, the laws currently contain a number of exceptions for religious bodies, such as churches, and religious-based schools (including their sports clubs) and healthcare practices.

As part of its broader work addressing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Institute has proposed a number of reforms that help to enshrine the central role of religious beliefs in such organisations, but it would also become unlawful for them to discriminate solely on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“In the course of our work we have heard that people – including students, staff and even patients in medical practices – may still be experiencing unfair treatment at school and work on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This discrimination can and does have a serious impact on their lives,” says the University’s Professor John Williams, Director of the SA Law Reform Institute.

“By making changes to the existing laws we can help send a message to all South Australians that such discrimination is never acceptable.
“The report also identifies ways to make the South Australian anti-discrimination laws easier to understand and use for sports clubs, schools and employers by providing clear guidance about how to encourage diversity and support equality,” he says.

The Institute’s report follows an extensive community consultation, which attracted more than 350 submissions and comments from a wide range of South Australians. The vast majority of these submissions expressed support for keeping those parts of the anti-discrimination laws that currently permit religious schools to discriminate on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity when employing staff.

“South Australian families have the right to bring up and educate their children in accordance with their beliefs and values, and our law needs to respect and support this right, but this needn’t give the green light to unfair treatment of students and employees in schools,” Professor Williams says.

“Our recommendations seek to strike a careful balance between these two important interests by making it clear that discrimination against students and employees on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is unlawful, while at the same time allowing religious schools to implement reasonable and public policies to employ people who share their religious beliefs.”

The Institute’s Report also flags changes that are needed to be made to bring South Australia into line with Commonwealth laws and highlights areas where South Australia already succeeds in promoting equality.

“The law is an important way to set out our shared values, of which equality is a significant one for all South Australians. The changes proposed in this report are vital to ensure that the Equal Opportunity Act reflects those values.”

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