Australia’s peak Catholic education body has warned the government its draft religious discrimination act needs revisions because there is nothing in the bill to stop the states and territories from passing new laws driving faith from the public square.  The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) is joining with a growing number of groups in questioning whether the protections in the government’s draft bill will allow faith based educators to preference teachers on their religion when it comes to hiring decisions.  Scott Morrison’s decision to defer consideration of religious exemptions in anti-discrimination regimes, including the treatment of gay students and teachers at faith based schools, to the Australian Law Reform Commission is also identified as a key problem.

“There is a risk that following the ALRC process, further work (including new legislation (or amendments)) will be required.  It would be better for all issues to be dealt with at once,” the NCEC submission says. The NCEC warns that, once the ALRC inquiry is conducted, further changes to the government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Act (RDA) may be needed or the ability of Catholic schools to operate according to their ethos could be put at risk.  Concerns are also raised at the draft bill’s definition of religious belief or activity as “engaging in lawful religious activity.”

The NCEC argues that legal changes passed by the states and territories could render currently accepted religious practices unlawful in the future, which would then “have the effect of making the activity of the Catholic school unlawful.”  “The word lawful is unnecessary and it should be deleted,” the submission says.  Alarm is expressed with the wording of section 10 of the draft bill which contains a positive right stating that religious bodies are free to act in accordance with their faith.  This section has raised alarm bells with a number of groups, including faith based educators like the Association of Independent Schools of NSW, which argue that section 10 is defined too narrowly and could fail to give protection to religious schools that preference teachers on their faith.

The NCEC notes that, in a Catholic school context, the values of the Gospel underpin all aspects of the school, even day to day operational matters.  “Catholic schools employ some staff who are not baptised as Catholics. In common with all staff, non-Catholic staff are required to be supportive of the teachings and mission of the Catholic Church, act as role models to students and do nothing that would undermine the transmission of those teachings.  “On a narrow reading of section 10, a secular authority may regard certain employment decisions as outside section 10 even though such decisions are vital to ensuring that a Catholic school operates as a Catholic school.”

The NCEC also warns that the RDA should include clearer provisions about the applicability of existing state and territory law, noting that some jurisdictions had passed laws which “encroach upon religious freedom.”  “Notwithstanding actions at the federal level to protect religious freedom, state and territories may continue to do so unless restrained by an item of overriding legislation,” he said.  “NCEC believes the time is right to consider the harmonisation of state and territory legislation with Commonwealth legislation which helps to protect religious schools from laws that would restrict their ability to pursue their mission.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports