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Archbishop Fisher leads opposition to Federal education reform proposals

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“We are doubtful that the ALRC process can reach any balanced outcomes,” Archbishop Fisher and his co-signatories have said. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, Sydney Anglican Archbishop Kanishka Raffel and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Makarios Griniezakis have joined other senior religious leaders in a general revolt against the Federal Government’s proposed religious educational reforms.

In a letter to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, Archbishop Fisher and his co-signatories convey their “deep disappointment” with the proposed reforms in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s consultation paper on religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws.

The religious leaders initially wrote to Mr Dreyfus in 8 June 2022 and welcomed the ALRC’s reforms, “in no small measure” because of Labor’s commitment to allow religious schools to preference people of their own faith in the selection of staff.

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But the new letter, dated 13 February, says the proposals in the consultation paper “place severe limits on the application of this principle … neither expressly or impliedly called for in the [government’s] terms of reference themselves”.

“The ALRC is proposing to greatly restrict this freedom by requiring religious schools to employ teachers who may not share or support the religious beliefs of the organisation, and whose employment can only be terminated where they “actively undermine” the religious ethos of the school,” the letter reads.

The signatories argue that the ALRC proposals will “introduce a new test into employment law, whose application and meaning are far from certain”.

“In any given case, the onus would be on the school to prove that it satisfied the test.

“This would greatly expand the scope for future litigation, and would thus have a deterrent effect on any religious school contemplating engaging a candidate for employment who professes the same religion as the school, in preference to other candidates.”

Alongside Archbishop Fisher and his Anglican and Orthodox counterparts, Catholic bishops Peter Comensoli, Archbishop of Melbourne, and Maronite Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay also signed.

The letter also attracted signatures from the National Imams Council, Islamic Council of Victoria and Islamic Schools Association of Australia, and from Peter Wertheim AM, the co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Leaders of the Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Hillsong, the Baptists, the Australian Christian Churches, Copts, Assyrian Church of the East, Australian Christian Lobby, NSW Council of Churches and other groups joined the most significant revolt of religious groups to a government proposal in recent history.

“Having carefully considered the proposals in the Consultation Paper we are doubtful that the ALRC process can reach any balanced outcomes, as contemplated by the terms of reference, by starting with these proposals,” the letter reads.

The letter describes the ALRC as paying “lip service” to the human rights of parents who choose to send their children to religious schools.

The signatories also supported previous criticisms of the ALRC proposal by National Catholic Education Commission executive director Jacinta Collins, made in January.

“We agree with the comments from the National Catholic Education Commission that the proposed reforms fail to provide real protections for religious schools to effectively operate and teach according to their religious beliefs and ethos, and that if the proposed reforms were adopted it would be a major blow to authentic faith-based education in Australia.”

The status of LGBT students and teachers in religious schools was the key talking point in the public and parliamentary debate that caused the implosion of the Morrison Government’s religious freedom legislation in 2022.

Labor committed to introducing its own religious freedom legislation prior to their victory at the last election, with a spokesperson for Mr Dreyfus telling The Australian that the ALRC inquiry was a “crucial first step” towards meeting that requirement.

The ALRC consultation paper, released on 27 January, proposes broad reforms to religious exemptions under employment and sex discrimination law.

It cites laws in Queensland and Tasmania as evidence that reforms will not “significantly undermine the ability of religious schools to maintain their religious ethos.”

The letter from Archbishop Fisher and his co-signatories says this claim is “misleading … schools in those States rely upon the current exemptions in section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act and depend upon those exemptions overriding the State laws in order to maintain their religious ethos.”

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