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NT bishop vows not to give up over schools

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Newly appointed Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles in the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory Parliament, in Darwin. Photo: AAP Image/Aaron Bunch
Newly appointed Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles in the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory Parliament, in Darwin. Photo: AAP Image/Aaron Bunch

Bishop Charles Gauci of Darwin has vowed not to give up after the Northern Territory government passed far-reaching legislation removing religious exemptions to the NT Anti-Discrimination Act.

NT Labor’s suite of reforms included the repeal of s37A, which allowed Catholic and other religious schools to discriminate on the grounds of religious beliefs or activities, or sexuality. 

Now schools will be able to preference Catholic job applicants and staff only where being Catholic is a “genuine occupational requirement” such as in the case of principals and religious education coordinators. 

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NT Attorney-General Chansey Paech said in his Second Reading Speech that the repeal of religious exemptions was designed to strike a balance “reflective of contemporary needs and the objective of our act to promote equality for all”. 

“I am a member of the LGBTIQA-plus community. I am also a proud Catholic,” Mr Paech told NT Parliament. 

Mr Paech met privately with Bishop Gauci on 17 November after the Bishop appeared on a popular radio show to say he was disappointed in the lack of consultation and would “seriously consider closing [NT Catholic schools] and then all the kids would have to go to the state schools”.

“I’ve got a long memory, and while I will not tell people how to vote I’ll tell people to look at their conscience and protect our ethos and schools.”

Bishop Gauci held a joint press conference and protest with interfaith leaders on the steps of St Mary’s Cathedral on 19 November and published a terse exchange of letters between himself and Mr Paech on the Darwin Diocese’s website.

He said that Mr Paech then agreed to give certain assurances, which were read into Hansard as part of the Second Reading Speech. “I assure religious schools that the removal of section 37A is not intended to prevent them from operating in accordance with their religious identity and ethos, and they can continue to ensure that those who are leading their operations are of the same faith,” Mr Paech said. Bishop Gauci wrote to the NT’s Catholics to say Mr Paech’s assurances meant he felt “quietly confident that the future of our schools will continue to be ensured as authentic Catholic schools” but “would have preferred that these things were enshrined in the legislation”.

“I’m not going to give up wanting to move further. I’m not happy for it just to stay there. It’s certainly a great improvement from what they had planned initially, I believe,” Bishop Gauci told The Catholic Weekly. 

The Bishop said he would continue to seek advice and would expect Mr Paech’s statements in Parliament to be taken into account in any future dispute, also noting that the NT opposition said they would repeal Labor’s reforms.

“I’ve got a long memory, and while I will not tell people how to vote I’ll tell people to look at their conscience and protect our ethos and schools,” Bishop Gauci said.

Charles Darwin University’s Associate Professor Alan Berman, a legal academic and expert on hate speech and homophobic abuse, said the repeal of s37A was the “most significant change” in Labor’s package of reforms.

Bishop Charles Gauci of Darwin. Photo: Supplied
Bishop Charles Gauci of Darwin. Photo: Supplied

“This provision is more progressive than anti-discrimination laws in other jurisdictions, such as New South Wales … The elimination of exemptions for religious schools to discriminate against students and staff based on sexual orientation or gender identity will foster a more inclusive culture at these institutions and protect vulnerable members of the community from unfair treatment in the name of religion,” Professor Berman said in a statement.

The NT reforms have also introduced a raft of other “protected attributes” to the Act, including language, gender, accommodation status, socio-economic status, and employment or past employment as a sex worker. 

The reforms also add a “positive duty” to “prevent and eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation to the greatest extent possible”. 

NSW Labor has promised to refer the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to the NSW Law Reform Commission if it wins government next year in March. 

When approached by The Catholic Weekly, a spokesperson for Shadow Multiculturalism Minister Steve Kamper, recently appointed by Opposition Leader Chris Minns to oversee Labor’s proposed Faith Affairs Council, said the review would hope to “strengthen and clarify the position of faith-based schools”. 

“Faith groups and other interested parties will be consulted on the terms of the review,” he said. “And we don’t want to pre-empt the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, as this is important and complex work. 

Mr Dreyfus’ instructions for Justice Stephen Rothman AM … include the principle to ‘give preference, in good faith, to persons of the same religion as the educational institution in the selection of its staff’.”

“But we would expect any proposed reforms would strengthen and clarify the position of faith-based schools when preferencing someone of the same religion when selecting staff.” 

Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has also asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to review Federal religious exemptions. 

Mr Dreyfus’ instructions for Justice Stephen Rothman AM, who will head the review, include the principle to “give preference, in good faith, to persons of the same religion as the educational institution in the selection of its staff”.

Bishop Charles told The Catholic Weekly that throughout this process he has sought to “act in a manner that’s always true to my Christian faith and standing”.

“I have a belief that the method of what you do is itself the message. The larger community watching this will know I’ve tried to act with integrity and respect, and yet am still firm on what we have to do,” he said. 

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