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Religious freedom laws in question again after schools inquiry report pushed back

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Justice Stephen Rothman in a file photo from 2012. (AAP Image/Cameron Richardson)

The Federal Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, has extended the reporting deadline for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s controversial religious schools inquiry, from today to 31 December, leading to “significant questions” about further delays on religious discrimination legislation.

Faith groups had been anticipating an extension since February this year, due to the large number of submissions received by the inquiry—more than 420 submissions, and more than 40,000 survey responses.

But the length of the extension has caused frustration after years of back and forth over religious discrimination.

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Mike Southon, Executive Director of Christian legal think-tank Freedom for Faith, said the announcement “raises more questions than it answers.”

“From our engagement with the ALRC, Freedom for Faith expected an extension would be granted. However, the large length of time given raises significant questions about the Government’s plans for the Religious Discrimination Bill, and what will happen in the likely case of an early election being called next year,” Mr Southon wrote in a statement.

“However, at very least, we demonstrated the effectiveness of high quality legal analysis and submissions, and the power of mobilising Christians across Australia to respond politically.”

Part-time commissioner tasked with leading the inquiry, Justice Stephen Rothman, said the extra time was needed as “the Commission considers the many varied perspectives thoroughly and sensitively.”

The ALRC inquiry, which is examining religious exemptions to sex discrimination legislation, was announced in November last year.

It was part of Labor’s approach to meet an election commitment to introduce religious discrimination legislation while not being seen to discriminate against LGBT groups, after the spectacular failure of the former Coalition government’s attempts at passing their own laws.

While religious leaders initially supported the inquiry, in mid-February Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP led a nationwide protest against the inquiry’s consultation paper, which indicated the ALRC would recommend severe limits on religious schools’ ability to privilege the employment of members of its own faith.

Senior leaders from nearly every major religious faith jointly signed Archbishop Fisher’s letter.

Justice Rothman said in February that the letter “had very little impact” on his thinking; religious legal experts expressed “utter dismay” at the inquiry’s direction.

Monica Doumit, Director of Public Affairs and Engagement for the Archdiocese of Sydney, said she hoped the extension signals a rethink at the ALRC about the direction of their inquiry.

“The ALRC consultation paper proposed a radical shift in faith-based schooling in this country and sought to strip religious schools of their ethos in both employment and teaching,” Ms Doumit said.

“I hope the extension of the deadline is a sign the ALRC is taking the feedback received on the consultation paper—including the concerns raised by almost every leader of religious schooling in the country—very seriously.

“It would be good if the ALRC used this time to engage with those faith and educational leaders who were not consulted prior to the release of the initial paper, and perhaps also to speak with some parents who place a high value on faith-based schooling for their kids and who don’t want to see it stripped away.”

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