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Catholic peak bodies call ALRC faith-based schools inquiry into question

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Catholic peak bodies issue withering criticisms of Australian Law Reform Commission ‘consultation paper’
Catholic peak bodies issue withering criticisms of Australian Law Reform Commission ‘consultation paper’

The viability of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry into faith-based schools is in question after peak bodies representing the Catholic education sector, the largest non-government sector, united in opposition to the inquiry’s “impoverished understanding of religion and freedom of religion.”

The National Catholic Education Commission, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic School Parents Australia submissions offer firm and consistent criticisms of the consulation paper, with the NCEC submission recommending the inquiry “goes back to the drawing board” altogether.

The NCEC also said the proposed reforms to religious exemptions to anti-discrimination law, which would strongly restrict the right of Catholic schools to preference Catholic teachers in employment, and would require staff to teach non-Catholic views alongside the church’s doctrines, suffered from a “lack of evidence, and domestic and international case law.”

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“The ALRC’s proposed reforms do not meet the ALRC’s own legal framework for this inquiry to ensure that any limitation on human rights has a ‘compelling justification’, ‘pressing social need’, are ‘proportionate’, and ‘least restrictive’,” the submission states.

The NCEC also strongly opposed the report’s implied view that Christian teachings on gender, sexuality and human dignity are inherently harmful.

“The failure to appreciate, in greater depth, what it means for a religious school to be a community of faith points to a larger incomprehension in the paper about the nature of religion, and consequently, about the nature of religious freedom,” the submission states.

“The submission also expresses the NCEC’s irritation at having made six submissions to various religious freedom inquiries in recent years.”

“This is further reflected in one of the governing assumptions of the paper which seems to approach religious schools as inherently discriminatory, and religious beliefs and teachings, especially about sexuality and gender, as harmful.

“This false assumption leads to the wrong conclusions about the legislative context and changes required.”

The submission also expresses the NCEC’s irritation at having made six submissions to various religious freedom inquiries in recent years, with the ACBC making a further 10 submissions and appearing at four public hearings.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference likewise said the ALRC’s consultation paper “gets the balance wrong by going further than is necessary or proportionate.”

“The recommendations in the consultation paper would make it impossible for religious educational institutions to maintain their mission and ethos,” the bishops’ submission says.

The bishops’ submission also strongly protests the false talking point that Catholic schools are hotbeds of discrimination.

“Fabricated claims of discrimination against our students on any grounds undermines the good work of Catholic schools and unnecessarily causes anxiety in the community,” the submission states.

“Where there is a discipline issue or disagreement, principals or other senior staff members will work to try to resolve the issue pastorally.”

Catholic School Parents Australia and the Council of Catholic School Parents NSW/ACT have both supplied submissions affirming parents’ rights as the primary educators of their children, and their right to choose schools according to their own values.

“Despite assurances from consecutive parliaments however, there is still no Religious Freedom Legislation in Australia to protect these fundamental rights,” the Catholic School Parents Australia submission states.

“The proposed reforms outlined in the Australian Law reform Commission (ALRC) Consultation Paper threatens the ability of an educational institution to effectively operate and teach religious values and beliefs, and to form an authentic community of faith.”

Coming in the wake of protests last month from senior clergy across nearly all faith traditions, the critical responses from Catholic peak bodies call into question the viability of the inquiry going forward.

“Given the heavy critique from the overwhelming majority of those involved in the religious schooling sector, it is difficult to see how the current ALRC inquiry can continue without a serious reconsideration of its starting assumptions,” said Monica Doumit, Director, Public Affairs and Engagement for the Archdiocese of Sydney.

“A failure by the ALRC to demonstrate that it has taken the comments and concerns raised in these submissions into account would call the reliability and legitimacy of any recommendations into question.”

Several other Catholic organisations made submissions to the inquiry, including the Bishops of the Australasian-Middle East Christian Apostolic Churches.

The Middle Eastern bishops said the consultation paper, “has no regard for the rights of parents who choose religious schooling partly because they desire to protect their children from being exposed to numerous secular matters, such as matters of gender and sexual fluidity at a young age.”

Church reform groups also made submissions, but largely backed the ALRC’s push to strip religious schools of exemptions to anti-discrimination law.

“[W]e submit that the Human Right principally engaged in this debate is the right of the individual to sexual identity, not the right to religious freedom,” the submission from Catholics for Renewal states.

“Indeed, our claim is the very limited one that in the particular case of this doctrine and of its teaching in religious educational institutions, the duty to protect individual sexual identity entitles and obliges the state to limit religious freedom.”

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