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“Christian Education Will Cease To Exist”

by | Fri, Mar 22 2024

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The CEO of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) Michelle Pearse has accused the Albanese government of a “calculated betrayal” after the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) report on Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws recommended removing religious protections for faith-based schools from the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) and the government kept plans for a new Religious Discrimination Act secret.

“The government has had this report for months, but have kept it under wraps, refusing to discuss its contents with major stakeholders including faith-based schools, faith leaders and the Opposition. This may be because the recommendations of the ALRC report sound the death knell to Christian and faith-based schools and institutions in Australia,” Ms. Pearse proclaimed.

“The government’s bill together with the removal of religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act provide no clarity to Christian schools. What’s even more shocking, despite keeping key stakeholders in the dark over its plans to cut the legs out from underneath them, the Albanese Government now expects agreement for a quick passage of their flawed Religious Discrimination Bill. It’s simply not good enough,” the ACL boss asserted.

Tabling the report in parliament, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the government wanted an “enduring solution” to protect students, teachers and people of faith and declared Coalition support was “essential”. He stressed the report was not from the government, but was advice to the government.

“Just as Commonwealth law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, disability and age, no one should be discriminated against because of their faith. Equally, no students or member of staff should be discriminated against because of who they are. At the same time, religious schools must continue to be able to build and maintain communities of faith. The government recognises and respects the right of parents to send their kids to a religious school because of the beliefs and values they teach their children,” Mr. Dreyfus insisted.

The ALRC recommended removing an entire section of the SDA which would prevent religious schools from mandating that students adhere to the doctrines, tenets, beliefs and teachings of their religion, and from preferencing teachers of the same faith when hiring staff. There is also a significant winding back of protections for religious institutions in the Fair Work Act with the ALRC saying it should be changed so that when employing staff, religious educational institutions can give preference to a person of the same religion only if it is “reasonably nece­ssary to build or maintain a community of faith”.

A coalition of Christian school groups denounced the recommendations, labelling the report “a direct attack on faith and freedom of belief in Australia.” Christian Schools Australia (CSA), Australian Association of Christian Schools (AACS) and Associated Christian Schools (ACS) declared that, if adopted, “Christian education as we know it, will cease to exist.”

CSA Director of Public Policy Mark Spencer said,: “Hundreds of thousands of Australian parents choose to send their children to faith-based schools because they value this type of education. Christian schools are communities of faith, where Christian teachers and staff engage with students from a faith perspective both inside and outside the classroom and are expected to be available for Christian devotion, prayer and support. A staff member who doesn’t share and support our beliefs cannot effectively teach our beliefs or support students according to our beliefs.”

AACS Executive Officer Vanessa Cheng called it “a line in the sand moment, not just for Christian schools, but for all people of faith and for the principle of religious freedom across Australia. If these recommendations are adopted, it means the government can tell Christian schools who we can employ, what we can believe and what we can teach. It sets a scary precedent and the question Australians need to ask is Who’s Next?”

Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli and Anglican Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead said the recommendations were unhelpful and fell short of meeting the government’s election promises, calling for the major parties to reject the report and work with faith communities to help draft better laws.

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said on Friday (March 22) that the government would carefully consider the report’s recommendations. “We want to see the reforms in relation to dealing with issues of religious discrimination, but it is really important that we are walking forward with consensus,” Mr. Marles told ABC News.

Prime Minister Albanese has signalled he would not proceed with his election promise to reform religious discrimination laws unless the Coalition guaranteed its support, a move which shocked ACL boss Michelle Pearse. “We, along with other religious leaders, were incredulous to hear the Prime Minister say he would not proceed with his promised Religious Discrimination Bill, unless there was agreement from the Opposition Leader. How can there be bipartisan support when there has been no collaboration, and when, at the time of this announcement, the Opposition had not even seen the proposed bill?” she expounded.

“The Opposition have now been briefed on the Religious Discrimination Bill and I have spoken with Senator Michaelia Cash. From what I hear, I am shocked at what appears to be a calculated betrayal of Christian schools and organisations. The government’s bill together with the removal of religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act provide no clarity to Christian schools and leaves any claims made against them to be determined by a court’s interpretation of murky legislation,” Ms. Pearse warned.

“Significant changes must be made to the Sex Discrimination Act proposed amendments and the Religious Discrimination Bill before the Opposition should consider bipartisan support,” she concluded, adding that the ACL urged the Opposition Leader to remain steadfast in rejecting the bills until a proper inquiry is held to allow stakeholders the opportunity to discuss and collaborate.

Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley vowed on Friday that the Opposition would want normal parliamentary scrutiny of the proposed religious discrimination laws. “That legislation needs to progress through the parliament in the same way that all legislation does, including the scrutiny, if necessary, of a Senate Committee. For Anthony Albanese to somehow take an approach where he doesn’t present things in a transparent and open way on a matter as sensitive as this indicates that he doesn’t have the character to deal with the issue in the way that he promised Australians he would before the election,” she said.

The Prime Minister responded: “I have made it very clear from very early on in this process in the meetings I have had with faith leaders and others, that this needs bipartisanship because I don’t want this to be an issue in which we go through the old culture wars. I think Australians do not want to see the culture wars and the division out there. I want this to be an opportunity for unity going forward and that is why we have provided the legislation to the opposition. Previously, the opposition were briefed on this, and we have said as well we are happy to engage across the Parliament on all of these issues”.