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It’s Time To Strengthen Our Anti-Discrimination Laws

This week we marked International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. It’s an opportunity to celebrate how far we’ve come on the road to equality for LGBTI people, but also to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead.

Here in Australia we have much to be proud of. Community attitudes have changed considerably and LGBTI people are more visible than ever before. Yet despite this, the parliament continues to lag behind when it comes to eliminating discrimination under the law. Discrimination in the Marriage Act has been a hot-button political issue for many years in Australia. It is now no longer a matter of ‘if’ we will see marriage equality but ‘when.’ And hopefully we will get there without Turnbull’s $160 million plebiscite!

While marriage equality is a critical reform in the quest for LGBTI rights, there are many other issues that must also be addressed. Chief among these is exemptions to anti-discrimination laws and this was a key plank of the Greens’ LGBTI policy that we released on Tuesday.

The Sex Discrimination Act is designed to protect people from discrimination on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity at work and in access to services. The exemptions however mean that a religious school can sack a gay teacher and that a homeless shelter can deny service to a transgender young person. This can literally have a life-ruining impact. Why should your capacity to do a job or your access to health, education or housing be determined on the basis of your sexuality or gender identity? And why should organisations receiving huge amounts of public funds (like private faith-based schools) be given a get out of jail card when it comes to discrimination?

No Australian should have the right to discriminate. Of course freedom of religion is an important right in our democracy, but this should not take precedence over equality of opportunity and equality before the law.

These exemptions and the discrimination they legitimise play a role in perpetuating homophobia and transphobia in our broader society. How can we hope to truly eliminate these things if the law allows some of our nation’s schools, hospitals and other social services to discriminate?

The law as it currently stands also permits the denial of service to some of our nation’s most vulnerable people. The impact of discrimination on mental health is well documented and as a result, many LGBTI people experience mental health issues. Yet religious exemptions allow an organisation that receives government funds to help vulnerable people to deny them help on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. Within the work environment, many gay and lesbian teachers are forced to conceal their sexuality for fear of retribution from their employer.

Of course many religious organisations employ LGBTI staff and/or provide valuable support and services to LGBTI people but there are others who do not. LGBTI rights are not a luxury opt-in item, they should be respected and protected by our nation’s laws. No excuses.

Current religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws legitimise homophobia and transphobia and that is why the Greens are committed to removing them. It’s time for the Labor and Liberal parties to do the same.

This article was first published on May 16, 2016, on Same-Same.