Religious schools are under direct threat of activist-backed legal cases which “threaten the very future of faith-based education in this country,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has declared.
The ability of Christian schools to teach according to their faith should not need to be defended in costly actions instigated by activist groups in tribunals, commissions and courts, he said.
The Archbishop’s comments come after a former teacher at Ballarat Christian College commenced legal action against her former employer, claiming she was forced to resign after she refused to accept the school’s policy about same-sex marriage.
Ballarat teacher Rachel Colvin was employed at the non-denominational College for a number of years before her resignation in February. It is understood she was first employed in 2008 for several years, with her most recent term of employment from July 2016 until her resignation earlier this year.
She has filed a discrimination case with the Victorian Civil Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT) under Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
Her action is supported by Equality Australia, the new name of Australian Marriage Equality, the organisation that backed the case against Archbishop Julian Porteous by Tasmanian transgender Greens candidate Martine Delaney for distributing the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference booklet on the Catholic teaching about marriage.
“An activist-backed anti-discrimination complaint, lodged against the Ballarat Christian College, seems to have been carefully timed in an attempt to derail current efforts to protect religious freedom in Australia,” Archbishop Fisher said.
“The complaint apparently challenges the right of religious schools to teach that marriage is between a man and a woman and to require that staff not undermine that teaching. It therefore contests the right of parents to choose schools for their children that accord with their own religious beliefs on such matters.
“It also undermines the expectation that students be taught by teachers with conviction. It thus threatens the very future of faith-based education in this country.”
He said those who campaigned for a change to the definition of marriage in Australia had reneged on their claim there would be no negative consequences for those who did not agree.
“Here we are, less than two years later, and a prominent activist group borne out of the ‘Yes’ campaign demonstrates this was false.
“This is sadly true to form: it’s the same style of activism that sought to weaponise state anti-discrimination law against Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous.”
He criticised both the Liberal and Labor parties for failing to protect religious freedom in Australia. “At the time of the marriage postal vote, the leaders of both parties promised Australians of faith that religious freedom would be protected before any change to the law was made,” he said.
“They failed to fulfil that promise. Two years later and we are still awaiting adequate religious freedom protections.
“Two years later and religious schools are being subjected to exactly the sort of lawfare they said they feared and our leaders promised would be prevented.”
He said that even if the government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is passed, it still remains unclear whether the Ballarat Christian College would be protected and whether other faith-based schools would be able to continue to employ staff who share their mission.
“The Attorney-General has had some consultation with religious leaders and we understand that he has met with the activist group behind this claim. In light of these discussions, the Attorney-General must urgently clarify if it is intended that faith-based schools and other institutions will be protected in such cases under any proposed legislation.”