Christian Schools Denounce ALRC Report

Christian schools have denounced the Australian Law Reform Commissions (ALRC’s) final report into religious discrimination reforms, saying it has fewer protections for faith-based schools than its previous “controversial” consultation report and was a “direct attack on faith and freedom of belief in Australia”. Urging the government to immediately reject the recommendations, Christian Schools Australia, the Australian Association of Christian Schools and Associated Christian Schools said if the ALRC’s recommendations were adopted, “Christian education as we know it will cease to exist”. “If these ALRC recommendations are adopted, it means the government can tell Christian schools who we can employ, what we can believe and teach,” AACS executive officer Vanessa Cheng said. “It sets a scary precedent, and the question Australians need to ask is ‘who’s next’? Will they dictate to any other religious group or organisation what they can believe? “Teachers and other employees who don’t share our faith or beliefs have the choice to work at many other educational options.”

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says the Albanese government wants an “enduring solution” to protect students, teachers and religious Australians as it seeks bipartisanship for its religious discrimination reforms, declaring Coalition support “is essential”. Mr. Dreyfus tabled the Australian Law Reform Commission’s final report on religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws, pointing out it was not a report from the government but advice to government, which Labor would continue to consider.  “The government will seek to enhance protections in anti-discrimination law in a way that brings Australians together. Just as Commonwealth law already prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, disability and age, no one should be discriminated against because of their faith,” Mr. Dreyfus said. “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.”

“The government is seeking an enduring solution that strengthens protections for all students, teachers, and people of faith. That’s why bipartisan support for solutions is essential.” Dreyfus went on to say. The government received the ALRC’s report just before Christmas and had to table it within 15 parliamentary sitting days, making last Thursday the last day it could have been released. The ALRC has recommended removing section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act in its entirety, which would prevent religious schools from insisting students adhere to the doctrines, beliefs and teachings of their religion. 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 religious educational institutions can employ staff to give preference to a person of the same religion if it is “reasonably necessary to build or maintain a community of faith”. The preference must be proportionate to the aim of building or maintaining a community of faith, including in light of any disadvantage or harm that may be caused to any person not preferred, and cannot amount to conduct that is unlawful under the SDA.

As it stands, Section 38 of the SDA – which the ALRC wants abolished – allows religious schools to preference teachers of the same faith when hiring staff. The ALRC also recommends an equivalent exception for religious schools should be included in a future Religious Discrimination Act. The removal of section 38 and the replacement of new exemptions – as the ALRC is suggesting – has been resisted by faith groups because religious leaders feared there would be restrictions imposed on their schools so that teachers who weren’t of the same faith could be hired for non-religious subjects. Section 38 of the SDA has created controversy because they are expressed by way of exemptions, allowing schools to lawfully “discriminate” on the basis of an individual’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status in limited circumstances. “The overall effect of recommendation 1 (including repealing section 38 of the SDA) would be to narrow the circumstances in which it would be lawful to discriminate against students or staff at religious educational institutions on SDA grounds,” the ALRC report states.

“The overall effect of recommendation 7 (including amending the Fair Work Act) would be to narrow the circumstances in which it would be lawful to treat staff (particularly existing employees) at religious educational institutions differently on the ground of religion; to ensure that differential treatment on the basis of religion does not allow for discrimination on SDA grounds; and to allow religious educational institutions to give preference to persons of the same religion in selecting employees, in order to build and maintain a community of faith. A number of Coalition MPs view the removal of section 38 from the SDA as a “red line” that cannot be crossed, with one MP warning earlier this week it would be “bedlam if that happened”.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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