The challenge of religious freedom for faith-based schools is an ongoing and important issue for Catholic school parents, educators and the broader Catholic community.
Since 2017, successive Australian governments have committed to proactive legislation to protect religious freedoms and the rights of parents to choose a faith-based school for their children, and the right of faith communities to continue to teach and operate faith-based schools.
To date, there have been a number of key reviews by the government with little progress being made towards protections for religious freedoms.
Concerns for religious freedom are amplified by the ACT Government’s plans for the compulsory acquisition of Calvary Hospital and the Victorian Government’s proposed removal of payroll tax exemptions that would have affected over 21,000 secondary school students and 40,000 families.
In a recent statement, Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher OP called on the Catholic community to make their voices known to the Prime Minister.
“If the ACT Government can do this to a Catholic hospital, then what is to stop them or any other government doing it to a Catholic school or nursing home?” Archbishop Fisher said. “Legislation to safeguard against religious discrimination has been promised by both major parties for years but nothing has happened.”
Last year, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) was asked to review current exemptions in anti-discrimination laws for religious schools, while ensuring that faith-based schools can continue to build a community of faith by giving preference to staff from the same religion.
The proposals outlined in the ALRC’s initial consultation paper seriously threaten the ability of faith-based schools to prioritise the employment of teachers and staff who share their faith, except in a small number of cases; and fail to provide protections for faith-based schools to operate and teach according to their religious beliefs or to build an authentic community of faith.
The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) outlined serious concerns to the ALRC including the lack of understanding of religion and religious freedom in the consultation paper, and the serious deficiencies in the ALRC’s initial proposals which fail to protect religious rights.
The NCEC recommended that the ALRC go back to the drawing board on these reforms and consult further with the government’s expert advisory group. The NCEC has also indicated that any changes to current anti-discrimination laws must go hand-in-hand with the introduction of laws to protect religious freedom.
The ALRC has sought an extension until the end of the year to consider the substantial number of submissions to its proposed reforms.
The Australian Government has committed to ensure appropriate protections for religious freedom in this term of government. The NCEC will continue to advocate strongly to the government to meet this commitment, and to all members of parliament on the importance of religious protections for families of faith and for Catholic schools. These protections are recognised under international law and must be adequately protected under Australian law, ensuring a fair and reasonable balance for all protected rights.
Catholic education is highly valued and respected in Australia and has educated millions of students over 200 years. Catholic schools should be free to be Catholic, and operate and teach according to their ethos.
National Catholic education executive director