Tuesday, 19 September 2017 13:02

Tribunal rules on discriminatory school uniform policy

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission today said the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal's decision in the Arora v Melton Christian College case was an important test for clarifying the exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

This is the first time that these exceptions from discrimination have been considered in Victorian courts or tribunals.

VCAT found Melton Christian College unlawfully discriminated against a five-year-old Sikh boy when it decided not to admit him as a student if he wore his patka at school. The Commission intervened in the case to assist VCAT in interpreting the law.

The school argued that its decision was not unlawful because its uniform policy was neutral with the aim of treating all students equally by not allowing any headwear.

"VCAT's decision shows that all schools must ensure their uniform policies are not discriminatory," Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton said.

"Treating all people the same does not result in giving everyone equal opportunity. The decision makes it clear that there is a stark difference between headwear that connects a person to their religion and a sports cap or fashion accessory."

Victorian law protects all people from discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs and activities in the area of education. Melton Christian College argued that exceptions set out in sections 39 and 42 of the Equal Opportunity Act justified its actions.

As part of her judgment, Member Grainger stated: "I consider that MCC's uniform policy, in so far as it prohibits head gear of a non-Christian faith, could be described as 'openly discriminatory'."

"The school could have made a reasonable adjustment to the uniform policy by allowing Sidhak to wear a patka in the same colour of the school uniform," Member Grainger stated in the decision.

She went on to say the school failed to consult widely with parents and students when setting the uniform policy and therefore contravened the Equal Opportunity Act.

"It is not reasonable to accept enrolment applications from students from non-Christian faiths only on condition that they do not look like they practice a non-Christian religion," Member Grainger said.

The Tribunal found that whilst Melton Christian College is a Christian school, it accepts enrolments from other faiths and that more than 50 per cent of the local community does not identify explicitly as Christian and many families at the school have non-religious beliefs.

"We are pleased that our laws have been interpreted with care in a way that best promotes the rights of children and the right to equality and freedom of religion and that exceptions only apply where justified," Commissioner Hilton said.

"VCAT's decision upholds the principles of Victoria's equal opportunity laws and that exceptions to these laws only apply in very narrow circumstances."

If you feel you or your child has been discriminated against because of your religious beliefs or another personal characteristic, you can call the Commission on
1300 292 153 or submit an online complaint form.

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