The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) recently released consultation paper threatens to further erode the capacity of Christian schools to offer a distinctive education shaped by a faith ethos. JOHN McCLEAN writes
You might remember the political stoush about the Religious Discrimination Bill during the time of the last government. Following the introduction of same-sex marriage, the government seemed intent on securing some religious freedoms. What we got was lots of controversies and several inquiries, and the whole thing fizzled out.
The Albanese government came to power with a promise to review anti-discrimination legislation to ensure religious schools could not discriminate against students or staff on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy. It also wanted those schools to operate still as a faith community by giving preference to staff who shared their religious convictions. That is a difficult ask, since religious convictions collide with issues of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship status.
The government set the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to review the relevant legislation and report on how this could be done. The ALRC has now released a consultation paper: Review into Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws (which you can find here).
The Review is bad news for authentic religious schooling, and completely misses the balance which the government claimed to be seeking. The comments below focus on Christian schools, but this will affect schools of any faith basis.
In terms of enrolment, the ARLC recommends that schools should have no exemption which allows them to discriminate against students on any of the protected grounds. It accepts that schools should be able to have uniform requirements, though even these would have to accommodate “transgender and gender diverse” students.
Most Christian schools have no desire to discriminate against students for enrolment. However, this kind of provision can make it difficult for schools to require students to comply with the required behaviour.
The impact on employment policy is a far greater concern. The paper recommends that religious educational institutions will only be able to preference staff with a faith commitment for positions that directly teach religious material or lead religious activities, that is chaplains or Christian studies teachers. Even then such preference could not equate to discrimination. This would mean that a school could not refuse to employ a Christian studies teacher who said they were a Christian in a sexual relationship outside of marriage.
If these proposals become Federal law, they will further erode the capacity of Christian schools to offer a distinctive education in a community shaped by a faith ethos. This has already been severely compromised by changes in anti-discrimination legislation in many states. The current federal legislation gives some protection but will disappear if the ARLC proposals are enacted.
So, rather than exploring how it could be possible for schools to retain their ethos and recruit staff who hold appropriate convictions, the review suggests ways to make this impossible. If this were a College assignment, the ALRC would fail for not following the instructions!
Staff selection is the heart of a genuine Christian school. Teachers need to grasp the gospel and be able to show how their discipline relates to it. Teachers and other staff have to model consistent Christian living. Someone who rejects biblical teaching on gender, sex and marriage cannot teach and live consistently with a Christian worldview.
These proposals will not impact theological colleges directly, since they would still have exemptions for religious bodies. That said, I’m sure there will be challenges for us in the future.
The Presbyterian Church of Australia, the State churches and our schools will make submissions to the ALRC in response to the paper.
The ALRC invites individuals to participate in a survey. If you have any connection with Christian schools, take 10-15 minutes to fill it out.
The ARLC is due to present a final report for the government in April which will provide a basis for drafting amendments to the legislation. It will be important for the Christian and religious community to have a clear voice at each step along this process. This opening round will be crucial.
Pray that Christian leaders and Christian schools can make a difference to the government policy direction.
For more information:
See the ARLC report.
Neil Forster, a Christian law academic from Newcastle University, has an analysis and assessment of the report.
Steve MacAlpine, a Christian commentator, warns of the threats in the report.
Draft Answers to ARLC survey — provided by Freedom for Faith.
Question: Do you see the creation of a ‘community of faith’ within a religious educational institution as important?
Comment: Schools are about more than just teaching maths and English – they are a learning community that shapes the whole person. That’s why schools teach sport, art and ethics. Parents choose faith-based schools because they want that learning community to also be a community of faith that shapes their child.
In your answer, you might talk about how you have experienced the community of faith in your school or college, and how you value that as a part of education.
Question: What do you think about reforms to change the law so that religious educational institutions would not be allowed to discriminate against students on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, or pregnancy?
Comment: All schools set down codes of conduct for students that reflect the values of the school and the community it serves. No student should be harassed or bullied for any reason. However, all schools should be able to have rules of conduct that reflect the faith of the community.
In your answer, you might suggest that schools should treat all children with respect and love, but that it is reasonable for a school to have rules of behaviour in line with their faith.
Question: What do you think about reforms to change the law so that religious educational institutions would not be allowed to discriminate against staff on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy?
Comment: Schools that are faith communities need to have staff who uphold that faith. Faith is a fundamental worldview that impacts all of life for a believer. For many faiths, this impact includes sexuality. Staff who work in faith-based schools and colleges should expect to be asked to share the values of the faith community, not only in their teaching but in their manner of living out their faith.
In your answer, you might discuss the value of having staff that uphold the faith in creating the faith community in a school or college. For faiths that hold to specific beliefs about sexuality, those beliefs cannot be separated from the rest of the faith.
Question: In relation to the employment of staff and selection of contractors…
- what do you think religious educational institutions should be permitted to take into account in preferencing members of the same religion?
- What do you think religious educational institutions should not be permitted to take into account in preferencing members of the same religion?
- Are there some factors that institutions should be permitted to take into account for particular employee/contractor roles, but not for other employee/contractor roles?
Comment: Each faith has its own requirements – some have restrictions on clothing, diet, and all kinds of behaviour. It is dangerous for a Government to decide which bits of a faith a religious school is allowed to require, and which bits are not.
In your answers, you might talk about the need for religious groups to hold to their own faith and not be told what they are and are not allowed to believe.
*John McClean (G,S&C Convener), is the lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Christ College in Sydney. His area of teaching includes ethics and he writes a regular a column on ethics in Pulse. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two young adult children. They live in the lower Blue Mountains and are involved in Springwood-Winmalee Presbyterian church. Before lecturing at Christ College he was the minister of Cowra Presbyterian Church.