Christian schools, churches, denominations and parachurch organizations are strongly opposing proposed law changes that would jeopardize the mission of religious schools in Australia.
Current law allows religious schools to be exempt from laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy. But in January, the Australian Law Reform Commission presented a “consultation paper” with four key proposals that would, in the commission’s words:
- “Make discrimination against students on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, or pregnancy in schools and other religious educational institutions unlawful, by removing exceptions currently available under federal law,
- “Protect teachers and other school staff from discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, or pregnancy, by removing similar exceptions, and
- “Allow religious schools to maintain their religious character by permitting them to give preference to prospective staff on religious grounds where the teaching, observance, or practice of religion is a part of their role (and it is not discriminatory on other grounds); and
- “Require all staff to respect the educational institution’s religious ethos.”
The commission asked for public feedback on the proposals to be submitted by Feb. 24, with the commission due to present its final recommendations to Australia’s attorney general by April 21.
Although two of the points above might seem to provide some protections to religious schools, many Christians are warning that if the government adopts the commission’s recommendations, religious schools will no longer be able to maintain the integrity of their beliefs.
For example, point No. 3 would allow the schools to hire staff in keeping with the school’s religious mission only for those staff members whose role is specifically related to religion.
“This means that our Anglican schools will never be able to preference [religion] in ‘general’ teaching roles—perhaps 95% or more of all teaching roles—because religious belief or activity is not a formal requirement of these roles,” noted the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in its official response to the commission.
The Presbyterian Church of Australia, in its submitted response to the commission, added: “The consultation does not understand the nature of religious education. Religious education, certainly Christian education in the Presbyterian tradition, is not merely the communication of certain facts and the development of relevant skills. Rather it presents students with a holistic worldview that should shape every aspect of their lives. This requires educators and other staff who not only hold convictions but also live them out. The proposed restrictions on recruitment, such that freedom in recruitment will only apply to teachers involved in religious education, fail to recognize the way Christian schools present a Christian ethos across all key learning areas. It also fails to recognize the impact of ancillary and support staff on the life and values of the school community.”
Others have noted a glaring contradiction in the proposals: Australian law allows political employers, such as members of Parliament, to hire only people who adhere to the employer’s beliefs and activities. So to require religious schools to hire those who do not adhere to the school’s beliefs amounts to discrimination against religion.
In response to the backlash from Christians and other religious groups, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in February that his party will respect religious schools’ right to select staff based on faith, but religious groups want to make sure the government continues to hear their objections.
The Australian Christian Lobby, which has built a large grassroots network across the country, is asking people to send emails to the prime minister, attorney general and education minister.
“If we don’t speak up urgently to convince the Albanese government to get serious about rejecting this proposal, you will see the end of authentic Christian schooling in Australia,” the group said.
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