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No faith in proposed school laws

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To operate and teach according to the Catholic ethos and build a community of faith, Catholic schools have to serve the needs of Catholic families first. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
To operate and teach according to the Catholic ethos and build a community of faith, Catholic schools have to serve the needs of Catholic families first.. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Of course, there was a century of no government funding or support which was a serious impediment to the provision of adequate schooling facilities.

Thankfully, the Menzies Government recognised the dire need to fund Catholic schools during the ‘Goulburn Strike’ in 1962.

Since then, successive governments have recognised the contribution and value of Catholic education to the social, economic and moral fabric of our nation through ongoing funding and support.

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While Catholic schools were the first, and remain the largest faith-based schooling sector in Australia, there are a growing number of faith-based schools from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh and other faith traditions.

In the non-government sector, there are also a range of non-religious schools based on different pedagogical or ideological beliefs and practices such as Montessori and Steiner schools.

“The Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) Consultation Paper on the review of religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws has recommended to remove the ability of faith-based schools to operate and teach according to their religious values and beliefs.”

There’s even “a growing community-run Nature School in Port Macquarie that gets 84 per cent of its funding from government.

Australia’s diverse school system, of which nearly 40 per cent are non-government schools, is unique in the world. While there is constant debate about whether non-government schools should receive tax-payer funding – which seems incredulous when parents who are tax-payers choose to send their children to these schools, and a free, compulsory education is enshrined in international law – there has been a general consensus in our pluralist society that faith-based schools should be able to teach according to their beliefs and values. Until now.

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) Consultation Paper on the review of religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws has recommended to remove the ability of faith-based schools to operate and teach according to their religious values and beliefs. To be clear, faith-based and other non-government schools teach the same curriculum as public schools, but they do this within the context of their religious, ideological or pedagogical beliefs and practices.

The ALRC’s recommendations will severely curtail the ability of faith-based schools to employ staff who support the school’s ethos.

NCEC head Jacinta Collins, second from right, says in order to operate and teach according to our ethos and build a community of faith, we have to be able to serve the needs of Catholic families first. Photo: Supplied
NCEC head Jacinta Collins, second from right, says in order to operate and teach according to our ethos and build a community of faith, we have to be able to serve the needs of Catholic families first. Photo: Supplied

While the ALRC’s terms of reference states that faith-based schools “could continue to build a community of faith”, the proposed changes to the exceptions make this impossible in their current form.

Catholic schools do not, and are not seeking to, discriminate against individuals based on their personal attributes.

At the same time, in order to operate and teach according to our ethos and build a community of faith, we have to be able to serve the needs of Catholic families first; to employ staff who support our ethos; and to ensure that we can teach from a Catholic perspective.

The ALRC proposes such narrow definitions of how faith-based schools can enrol, employ and require staff to teach the faith that it makes a nonsense of having faith-based schools at all.

“Secondly, there is a distinction between students and staff. Staff are entrusted by parents, as the primary educators of their children, to teach according to their values and beliefs.”

Firstly, Catholic schools are inclusive communities and respond pastorally to the individual needs of all students, regardless of their personal attributes or circumstances, even if these don’t align, at times, with the teaching of the Catholic faith.

These individual cases are already managed well within the pastoral care approach of each school, placing the human dignity of each student at the centre of our approach.
We’ve done this for two centuries.

Secondly, there is a distinction between students and staff. Staff are entrusted by parents, as the primary educators of their children, to teach according to their values and beliefs.
In a community of faith, the words and actions of staff model, and give witness to, the teachings and values of that faith community.

A recent survey on school perceptions showed 63 per cent of the general population, 82 per cent of Catholics and 79 per cent of Catholic school parents believe religious schools should be ‘entitled to require employees to act in their roles that uphold the ethos and values of that faith’, and the school should be free to favour hiring employees who share these values.*

PHOTO: Shuttershock

The ALRC’s proposal seeks to limit the requirement of staff upholding the ethos of a religious school to those who teach religious education.

It also limits the ability of the school to require teachers to teach the faith, unless the teacher also has the right to state their own ‘objective’ viewpoint.

Question: If a faith-based school can’t preference the employment of staff based on their religion except with very limited provisos, can’t ask them to support the ethos of the school, and can’t ask them to teach the faith, again without prohibitive conditions, then what are we left with?

Answer: A secular school.

Finally, the ALRC uses as its litmus test, state and territory legislation to restrict religious freedom. The same legislation that faith-based schools have been arguing against in Victoria and the Northern Territory is being held up as the benchmark.

“We don’t seek to discriminate against individuals based on their personal attributes. We seek equal respect for our beliefs and values.”

While we are yet to see how the untested inherent requirements provision will play out in our Catholic schools in these states, this type of provision ignores the broad nature of faith-based teaching and expression.

There are many misconceptions about religious belief and expression in the ALRC’s consultative paper that we will strongly challenge in our submission to the consultation process.

We don’t seek to discriminate against individuals based on their personal attributes. We seek equal respect for our beliefs and values. We seek balanced protections for the full range of rights, including religious rights in this country.

We seek freedom of religious belief and expression in a society that aspires to accept diversity and give every individual a fair go.

This debate is crucial to ensure faith-based schools are able to keep teaching their faith, as we have done in Catholic schools for over 200 years.

*Findings from a large community issues survey undertaken by national pollster, John Utting Research (November 2021).

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