More than 30 of the nation’s most senior faith leaders have written to Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to voice their concern over the future of religious education in Australia.
They fear the Albanese government will soon act to prevent religious schools from exclusively hiring teachers and other staff who share the same values and ethos.
It follows last month’s release of a consultation paper by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) which Mr. Dreyfus had asked to examine the way Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws applied to religious schools to ensure students and teachers could not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The paper proposed removing most exemptions for religious schools in discrimination laws, especially in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Catholic Weekly reports the alliance of faith leaders initially wrote to Mr. Dreyfus last June and welcomed the ALRC’s reforms because of Labor’s commitment “to allow religious schools to preference people of their own faith in the selection of staff.”
But this week’s letter expressed “deep disappointment” with the latest proposals saying they “place severe limits on the application of this principle … neither expressly or impliedly called for in the [government’s] terms of reference themselves”.
“The ALRC is proposing to greatly restrict this freedom by requiring religious schools to employ teachers who may not share or support the religious beliefs of the organisation, and whose employment can only be terminated where they “actively undermine” the religious ethos of the school,” the letter reads.
The signatories from Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths argued that the ALRC proposals will “introduce a new test into employment law, whose application and meaning are far from certain”.
“In any given case, the onus would be on the school to prove that it satisfied the test.”
“This would greatly expand the scope for future litigation, and would thus have a deterrent effect on any religious school contemplating engaging a candidate for employment who professes the same religion as the school, in preference to other candidates.”
“Having carefully considered the proposals in the consultation paper we are doubtful that the ALRC process can reach any balanced outcomes, as contemplated by the terms of reference, by starting with these proposals,” the letter continued.
“Despite paying lip service to the importance of all human rights, and rejecting any notion of a hierarchy of rights, the ALRC proposals would place unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions on the freedom of religious schools to give effect to the international human right of parents and guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions,” it warned.
“We call on the government to ensure the ALRC properly addresses the terms of reference … through a genuine consultation with input from religious leaders and religious education experts, parents (and) secular experts.”
“We agree with the comments from the National Catholic Education Commission that the proposed reforms fail to provide real protections for religious schools to effectively operate and teach according to their religious beliefs and ethos, and that if the proposed reforms were adopted it would be a major blow to authentic faith-based education in Australia.”
Mr. Dreyfus is scheduled to receive a final report from the ALRC by April 21.