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Burqa law would fuel fear, suspicion

I would like to put to bed some misleading comments implying that equal opportunity legislation is somehow putting the public at risk, by allowing people to cover their faces with certain apparel.

This past week, there have been calls for a new law allowing banks and government offices to require customers to show their faces or be refused entry, where there is a security issue.  I worry that this might simply fuel fear and suspicion against people who look different.

So it is worth exploring how the law stands now.  At present, banks, shops, offices and others providing customer service can legally require, as a condition of entry, that customers must not wear face coverings.

We haveall seen the signs commonly displayed on the front doors of banks, requiring people to remove their motorcycle helmets before entering.  These signs are quite legal.  A bank is within its rights to refuse entry or service to people who will not remove their helmets.

These signs do not, as yet, refer to the burqa or other forms of religious face or head covering, but they lawfully could. Nothing in the Equal Opportunity Act affects this right and I am puzzled that key public figures like Dr. Bob Such say that there is a ‘grey area’ in the Act.

The Equal Opportunity Act deals with a different question: that of wearing religious dress at work or in education. The rule there is that, generally, people are free to wear their religious dress in their workplace or to their school or college.  For instance, a state school student cannot be suspended or expelled for wearing her hijab to class, even if that is against school uniform rules.

The Act makes sensible exceptions to this.  The right does not apply if the religious dress will create a safety hazard.  For instance, suppose that a person wears religious dress with long, flowing sleeves.  If that person works on a production line where the sleeves could get caught in machinery, the employer is entitled to insist that the religious dress not be worn, or be modified to be safe.

The right likewise does not apply in a situation where it is reasonably necessary to require the person to show their face for identification purposes.  For instance, an employer is entitled to require the person to show their face to establish that they really are the employee in question and are entitled to access to the premises.  A school could require a student attending an exam to show her face to establish that she actually is the student who should be taking the exam.

The Act has nothing to say about the wearing of religious dress in any other situation - going into a bank or a shop or seeking service at a government office such as Motor Registration.  These places can already prohibit entry if they are concerned about security.  I find it hard to see what a new law would usefully add.

The right of all citizens to participate in every aspect of our community life is important and precious.  It is a right that binds us and builds respect.  Laws that have the potential to divide us and exclude certain groups should be very carefully considered and used as a last resort.

Anne Burgess
Acting Commissioner for Equal Opportunity

('In my view' published in The Advertiser, 9 July 2010)