Monica Doumit: Shorten option is sinister

Faith-based schools face the risk of becoming powerless to discipline or dispense with teachers committed to undermining the very reasons for which those schools exist.

In last week’s column, I wrote about the push to remove existing religious freedom protections for Catholic schools when it comes to students who are experiencing same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.

The campaign quickly – and strategically – moved from being about students to being about school staff and, specifically, whether a religious school could make employment decisions based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.

In a series of tweets, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten laid out the strategy clearly and unashamedly. While not the only proponent of this push, Mr Shorten’s Twitter feed is a telling example of the thinking of those looking to change the way Catholic schools are run.

“I’m pleased both sides of politics are now united in the view that exemptions allowing religious schools to discriminate against children should be removed,” he tweeted.

“I believe we can use this goodwill to go further and remove the exemption that would allow a teacher or school staff member to be sacked or refused employment because of their sexual orientation,” he continued.

“These laws are no longer appropriate, if indeed they ever were appropriate. It’s time our laws reflected the values we teach our children,” he concluded.

Don’t let the warm and fuzzy, “inclusive” language fool you. A closer look at Mr Shorten’s words reveals what is really at stake here. What he is saying is that the State – and not the individual school, the faith to which it belongs, or even the parents who choose to send their child to a religious school – gets to determine “the values we teach our children.”
This is scary stuff.

If we concede that the government gets to decide ‘the values we teach our children,’ we will see an idea of “Australian values” that does not include – and at times specifically rejects – Christian morality. This would have dramatic consequences for our ability to operate not only schools, but charities, hospitals and other social welfare institutions based on our beliefs. Catholicism would become just another non-government organisation (NGO) that undertakes charitable work.

Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against this. In his general audience five years ago this week, the Holy Father said: “The Church is like Mary. The Church is not a shop, she is not a humanitarian agency. The Church is not an NGO. The Church is sent to bring Christ and His Gospel to all…the Church carries Jesus and should be like Mary when she went to visit Elizabeth. What did Mary take to her? Jesus.”

As one of the key ministries of the Church, Catholic schools too are “sent to bring Christ and His Gospel to all.” How are they able to do this if they are forced, by the State, to employ those who openly reject His teachings?

As I wrote last week, Catholic and other religious schools are not looking to arbitrarily or unfairly discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or other status. In practice, these exemptions operate to allow schools to give preference to those candidates who demonstrate a commitment to the mission and ethos of the school, and to decline applicants who openly oppose or reject the same.

The Church is not alone in exercising a right like this. Political parties enjoy similar exemptions to anti-discrimination law. While an employer is generally not permitted to discriminate on the basis of political opinion or activity, exemptions exist to allow politicians and political parties to reject those existing or potential employees who do not share their political beliefs.

And it makes sense. The country could not run if the mission and values of an organisation could not, by law, be reflected in its staff.

Some politicians argue that this can be solved by using an ‘inherent requirement’ test for employment.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has said that, if re-elected next month, his Labor government will include such a test in the law. An inherent requirement test says that, while a commitment to the Catholic faith might be necessary for the principal or a religion teacher of a Catholic school, the same does not apply to a chemistry teacher or the school librarian. Under a law like this, a school would have no basis to decide not to hire a transgender sports teacher or an English teacher openly in a same-sex marriage.

Again, this is the State – and not the school – dictating the values of the school.
With all possible respect to Mr Andrews and others who propose this as a solution, an ‘inherent requirement’ test misunderstands the nature and purpose of faith-based schooling. In the same way that a person of faith is called to let it infuse every aspect of their lives and not restrict it to Sunday Mass and private prayer, Catholic education is not supposed to be restricted to religion classes and the occasional school Mass. Catholicism should permeate the entire school culture, and the State should not try to make it otherwise.

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