The Catholic church has denied discriminating against gay people in its hiring practices, despite rallying to protect its ability to fire staff for contravening church doctrines on same-sex marriage.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has joined the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in calling for a religious freedom act to protect religious exemptions to discrimination law in a submission to the Ruddock religious freedom review.
The review has been pulled in opposite directions with the Equality Campaign and LGBTI rights organisations calling for an abolition of religious exemptionswhile the Christian Schools Association and some church groups call for them to be preserved and reinforced.
The Catholic church submitted that its teaching “makes it clear that a gay person should be assessed for employment on the same basis as anyone else”.
“That is, staff in a school could reasonably be expected to support the teachings of the particular religion, to not undermine that teaching and to act as role models to their students,” it said.
During the marriage law postal survey campaign the Catholic church threatened to sack gay teachers, nurses and other staff if they engaged in civil same-sex weddings in breach of church doctrine.
In defence of that right, the Catholic church said the freedom for its schools to “employ staff who embrace Christianity is essential for providing effective religious education and faith formation to their students”.
It said staff have a “professional obligation … to do nothing publicly that would undermine the transmission of those teachings”.
The Catholic church said that nobody was compelled to work in Catholic schools and, because their religious ethos was “widely understood”, the powers of religious schools to use discrimination law exemptions when making employment decisions have been used “very rarely”.
The Catholic submission said that the structure of discrimination law “diminishes the relative weight or value” of religious freedom by making it appear to be a “grudging recognition” of that right.
It suggested a religious freedom act include a clause that having a religious requirement is not discrimination where it is a “genuine occupational qualification” and where it is “in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion”.
The Anglican Church of Sydney submitted that calls to remove religious exemptions from discrimination law were a form of “hard secularism” that would “have significant implications for faith-based hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, welfare providers and educational institutions”.
It claimed these agencies would even be forced to close, withdraw from receiving government funds or be “forced to comply with policies contrary to their religious beliefs or doctrine”.
The Anglican Church of Sydney lent support to a proposal by the Freedom for Faith submission to recognise a positive right to religious freedom to include freedom to “appoint people of faith to organisations run by faith communities” and “to teach and uphold moral standards within faith communities”.
The law should also include the “freedom of parents to ensure that their child’s religious and moral education is in accordance with their convictions” and an “anti-detriment” provision to prevent religious bodies losing funding or accreditation.
Those provisions replicate amendments proposed in the conservative Paterson same-sex marriage bill, which were defeated before marriage equality was legislated.
A group of Anglican deans, including the dean of Brisbane, Peter Catt, said that there was “insufficient evidence to make the case that religious freedom is under serious threat” from the legislation of marriage equality.
The Australian Human Rights Commission called for community consultation to develop new legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or belief and to consider alternatives to religious exemptions such as a “general limitations clause”.
A general limitations clause would specify that a limitation on the right to non-discrimination is only allowable where there is a legitimate aim, and the limit is reasonable, necessary and proportionate.
The AHRC said it was “highly unlikely” to support any proposed reform that “is likely to permit forms of discrimination that are currently unlawful”.
At a hearing in Sydney on Wednesday, the head of the five-member panel, Philip Ruddock, cryptically remarked to witnesses that he favoured a “minimalist model” of changes to discrimination law to assure Australians of the right to religious freedom.
At the hearing Prof George Williams called for a national human rights act to protect religious and democratic rights, including freedom of speech.
Williams told Guardian Australia legislating a right to freedom of religion in isolation “might be counterproductive” by prioritising one right over others.
Submissions have now closed and the panel is due to report by 31 March.