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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2018 Week 12 Hansard (Thursday, 1 November 2018) . . Page.. 4613 ..

It is therefore important that we act decisively to reassure the ACT community that we will not allow students or staff to be subjected to discrimination in our education system, including in non-government religious schools, because of their sexuality, gender identity or other protected attributes.

Madam Speaker, the territory’s Discrimination Act currently includes a broad exception for religious educational institutions. This may permit discrimination against students and staff because of their sexuality or other attributes where this discrimination occurs in good faith to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

Whilst the numbers of formal complaints to the ACT Human Rights Commission regarding discrimination in employment or education in non-government schools in the territory are low, the ACT government’s LGBTIQ Ministerial Advisory Council has documented concerning personal accounts of staff who have reported that they have been treated unfairly in employment in non-government schools based on sexuality or other protected attributes.

It is possible and, in fact, highly likely that the mere existence of this exception in our law could by itself deter staff or students from raising formal concerns about any discrimination that they experience. In this debate it is important to acknowledge that religious schools of all faiths are an important part of our community and we support the valuable contribution these schools make to our diverse social landscape.

As a human rights jurisdiction we respect the right to freedom of religion and the rights of parents to send their children to schools that conform to their religious beliefs. However, these rights should be subject to reasonable limitations to protect other important human rights such as the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to privacy, and the rights of children and young people.

The impact on vulnerable students of being treated unfavourably at school on the grounds of their sexuality or other protected attributes such as gender identity can be serious and cause long-term harm. Adolescence is a critical time of discovery and self-realisation. Feeling accepted and valued for who we truly are is the foundation for mental health and wellbeing.

This journey is even more challenging for young people who are same-sex attracted or who have diverse gender identities. Evidence shows that LGBTIQ young people face a considerably higher risk—considerably higher—of self-harm and suicide than other young people. These risks are further increased in a school environment that is experienced as isolating, unsupportive or discriminatory.

Research suggests that many LGBTIQ young people feel unable to share their true identity with teachers, counsellors or peers and fear that they will not be accepted for who they are. I am familiar with this experience, Madam Speaker, having been there myself. The impact of this secrecy, shame and isolation on LGBTIQ students can contribute to serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

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