Schools and freedom of religion

Beth Blackwood
4 December 2017

This week the federal House of Representatives debates the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 which, once passed, will legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.

According to media reports, church leaders have called on MPs to pass amendments to the Bill to protect religious freedoms.

Some media commentators have warned that, without specific protection, schools with a religious affiliation could lose their freedom to uphold the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their affiliated religion as expressed in both the curriculum or co-curriculum and in school operations, including staff recruitment policies and practices.

Transferring from one generation to another what we know and believe about the world and our place in it has been at the heart of educational endeavour for millennia. It is how we prepare our young people for adult life, maintain and build culture and strengthen social identity. Importantly, it is how we pass on faith traditions, and foster new generations as they begin their spiritual journeys.

In modern times, schools have been, and remain, key to this process, as recognised by all Australian governments in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. The Melbourne Declaration, which was agreed to in 2008 by all Australian education ministers, has set the directions for Australian schooling for 2009-18. Its preamble states:

Schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians, and in ensuring the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion.

As with the legalisation of abortion and euthanasia, the legalisation of same-sex marriage has highlighted an increasing disengagement in Australia between deeply held religious beliefs and secular values. While governments remain willing to agree that the work of schools entails the spiritual development of young Australians, the danger for schools with a religious affiliation in this growing divide may therefore be not so much a loss of freedom to engage in the spiritual formation of students, but an erosion of schools’ autonomy to define what that spiritual formation should be.

Australia’s schooling system reflects the diversity of Australia’s robust, multicultural society. We would all agree that the health of our society depends on adherence to shared values such as respect for the rule of law, and that some freedoms must be negotiated against competing rights. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that uniformity will always deliver equity. Respect for diversity underpins same-sex marriage legislation; it should also support the freedom of schools to reflect the beliefs and practices of the religions with which they are affiliated.

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