Religious schools must be allowed to keep the right to discriminate
Should religious schools and other education bodies have the right, as they now do, to discriminate when it comes to whom they employ and enrol?
The overwhelming majority of non-government schools are faith-based and committed to teaching the tenets of their particular religion. Given their religious character, the question arises as to what extent they should be free to manage themselves without intervention.
The overwhelming majority of non-government schools are faith-based.Credit:Louie Douvis
At the request of Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, the Australian Law Reform Commission has released a consultation paper putting forward its proposals for how the federal government should address these questions. Submissions will close on Friday.
The commission’s findings could have direct consequences for the 2724 religious non-government schools across Australia, plus the 1.4 million students and their parents, who make financial sacrifices to choose such schools.
The government has committed to enacting the reforms to ensure students cannot be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy; and teachers would be protected from discrimination on the same grounds.
Religious schools would be allowed to give preference to prospective staff on religious grounds where the teaching, observance or practise of religion is a part of their role and not otherwise discriminatory.
The Australian Law Reform Commission is examining how anti-discrimination laws best apply to religious schools.Credit:iStock
Organisations such as the Australian Education Union and human rights group Equality Australia argue schools and other education bodies should no longer have control over staffing and student enrolments. They argue it’s unfair and discriminatory.
Religious leaders from across Australia representing Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Anglican and Presbyterian religions, and the Australian Christian Lobby and the National Civic Council argue the opposite. They say faith-based schools must be allowed to act according to their religious tenets and beliefs.
Often forgotten or ignored in debates about human rights is that there is no such thing as unlimited freedom to do whatever you want. Within a liberal, democratic society like Australia, each person’s rights are always balanced against the rights of others and the community in general.
When it comes to employment, for example, there are times when the right to be employed has to be balanced against the right of employers to ensure their workers support and don’t undermine the organisation’s charter, mission and values.
The Greens wouldn’t want to employ a climate sceptic who wanted more coalmines, just as a refugee activist group would not hire a staffer who was racist and xenophobic. Nor would a feminist collective employ a sexist male who disliked women.
Any reasonable person would say “no way” to these scenarios. It’s long been accepted there are times when it is OK to discriminate. One’s person’s freedom always has to be balanced against the beliefs and convictions of others. Women’s gyms are allowed to say “no” to men, and separate boys- and girls-only schools are allowed to exist.
It’s only common sense to ask, then, why would someone with a strong commitment to a particular set of values want to apply for a job in an organisation or workplace that holds different values than theirs.
The right to balance freedoms and sometimes discriminate is especially true for religious schools.
Whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish or one of the many other faiths, the whole purpose of such schools is to teach the tenets of their faith and imbue students with their unique spiritual and moral teachings.
In an increasingly multicultural, multi-faith society like Australia it is vital that all faith-based schools, regardless of their religious character, have the freedom to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their various communities.
The uniquely religious nature of faith-based schools must be protected. Students who attended Christian schools, based on a Cardus Education Survey, are more civic-minded than graduates of government schools, as measured by involvement in political parties, professional associations, sporting and cultural groups.
The idea of removing the right that religious schools currently have to discriminate over staffing and enrolments represents a fundamental attack on religious freedom.
Removing or seriously compromising such religious freedom also represents an attack on the right parents have to choose a school where the staff, the school’s curriculum and the way the school is managed mirrors their religious beliefs and values.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights argues countries including Australia should guarantee “the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children [is] in conformity with their own convictions”.
Parents are their children’s primary educators and moral guardians, and they must be confident the religious schools they choose are free to remain true to their faith.
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