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Rift between faiths and government grows over religious schools inquiry

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All Saint's Liverpool students attend Mass. Photo: Supplied
Students of All Saints Liverpool attend Mass. Photo: Supplied

The federal government’s inquiry into religious schools is widening the rift between the government and Australia’s major faith communities, with submissions to the inquiry expressing “utter dismay” at the inquiry’s consultation paper, and predicting an “existential threat” to faith-based education.

The submissions follow remarks made on 24 February by the inquiry’s head, Justice Stephen Rothman, that earlier protests by senior faith leaders “had very little impact” on his thinking in the inquiry.

The Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry is investigating exemptions to anti-discrimination laws that allow religious schools to “discriminate” against students and staff on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status and other attributes in accordance with religious beliefs.

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But Professor Patrick Parkinson, a veteran Christian legal expert who serves on the board of think-tank Freedom for Faith, said in an individual submission to the inquiry that he was in “utter dismay” after having read the inquiry’s consultation paper, which he says makes “fundamental errors” in applying international human rights principles.

“Ignoring almost every submission made over the last few years by faith groups to multiple inquiries, failing to mention mainstream positions on international human rights that contradict its views, and citing almost none of the relevant Australian literature from a religious freedom perspective, the Commission has come up with a consultation paper that adopts an aggressive policy to secularise faith-based schools and to deprive them of their purpose,” Professor Parkinson wrote.

“We have engaged with these inquiries in good faith, and there is much in our submissions and scholarly writings which draws upon a thorough analysis of human rights principles.

“Yet there is scarcely any evidence in this consultation paper that the authors of this Consultation Paper have read anything we have written.”

Professor Parkinson also says that despite having engaged in dialogue with federal Labor, “the proposals made by the authors of [the consultation paper] cannot be reconciled with the policies that Labor took to the election and the promises it made”.

John Steenhof, principal lawyer at Human Rights Law Alliance, said the proposals in the consultation paper represented an “existential threat” to Christian education, and recommended the government “reject the approach taken in the consultation paper in its entirety”.

“We express real concern at some assumptions, reflected in the consultation paper, concerning an alleged propensity for Christian teaching to be inherently discriminatory and to cause other harms,” Mr Steenhof wrote.

“The Consultation Paper is written from a perspective which reflects anti-Christian assumptions.

“To those familiar with Christian schooling it seems far-fetched to suggest that Christian teaching of the sort provided in most Christian schools could expose students to discrimination or other risk.

“There is a serious perspective mismatch between anti-Christian ideological assertion and reality, which needs to be bridged.”

Other submissions from the Jewish and Islamic faiths’ peak bodies also strongly protest the inquiry’s consultation paper.

The Catholic Weekly understands that submissions from Catholic peak bodies are still forthcoming.

Inquiry head says faith leaders’ letter ‘had very little impact’

These objections further exacerbate the rift between the inquiry and Australia’s religious communities, adding to an earlier revolt from faith leaders, including Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, who expressed “deep disappointment” at the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry in a mid-February letter published in the media.

Yet NSW Supreme Court Judge Justice Stephen Rothman, the ALRC inquiry’s commissioner, has said the letter “had very little impact” on his thinking.

Justice Rothman made the remarks during question time at an address to a religious freedom conference held at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, on 24 February.

“The answer is, [the letter] had very little impact upon my thinking,” he said in response to a question from The Catholic Weekly.

“I was disappointed that these issues weren’t raised with us, rather than in the press. That’s certainly the case.

“And I was disappointed given I knew and had met with most of the people who had signed the letter, that they just didn’t pick up the phone, because they had been invited so to do.”

According to the consultee list for the inquiry, only four of the signatories of the letter received official consultations: Peter Wertheim from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry; Adel Salman, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria; and Christian think tankers Mark Sneddon and Mike Sothon.

While members of the National Catholic Education Commission were consulted, no Catholic bishop is recorded on the list; the only Christian bishop who appears to have been consulted is Michael Stead, of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

The faith leaders’ letter objected strongly to proposed “severe limits” on religious schools’ right to preference members of their own faith when employing staff.

“The ALRC is proposing to greatly restrict this freedom by requiring religious schools to employ teachers who may not share or support the religious beliefs of the organisation, and whose employment can only be terminated where they “actively undermine” the religious ethos of the school,” the letter read.

Justice Rothman said the faith leaders’ focus on employment rather than discrimination was unexpected.

“Interestingly, the letter deals almost overwhelmingly with the ability to choose people of faith rather than the indirect discrimination that may occur in relation to people because of an individual attribute such as sexuality, or sexual preference or the like—which we consider to be the more problematic area,” he said.

Justice Rothman added that he was sceptical about the inquiry’s capacity to meet its 21 April 2023 deadline due to the number of submissions received.

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