Schools and religious freedom

Beth Blackwood

20 November 2018

On 13 November 2018, the Australian Senate initiated an inquiry into ‘legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff’. The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee is to report by 26 November 2018.

That the Committee has just 13 days to inquire and report on an issue that touches on deep matters of identity and faith is alarming. Even the title of the inquiry is misleading. Schools do not have the right to discriminate against students, teachers and staff on religious grounds. Schools – and other organisations with a religious affiliation – have the right to apply for exemptions to anti-discrimination laws on religious grounds, and they have the right to defend action taken to protect or promote tenets of religious faith under current anti-discrimination law, but there is no guarantee such exemptions will be granted or that the actions they take will be upheld by courts, tribunals or commissions.

As many have been at some pains to point out, anti-discrimination laws do not enshrine the right to religious freedom.

Australia is forging its way to a new legal compact between the secular and the religious. This is evident in debates on same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia. It would be dangerous to think what amounts to profound cultural change can be progressed by rushing through amendments to federal anti-discrimination and employment laws targeting schools. Instead, we need our parliamentary leaders to provide space and time for careful and respectful dialogue, so that the views and the rights of all parties are heard and accounted for.

As a first step, the Morrison Government must release the report of the Religious Freedom Review. Leaks and misreporting of the Review’s recommendations have caused unnecessary hurt and offence and served only to undermine civil discourse.

How Australia balances fundamental human rights will determine not only the breadth and depth of diversity in our society but our freedom to celebrate that diversity. We need to be watching out for each other, including watching out for those who hold different views and adhere to different values. 

Beth Blackwood is AHISA’s Chief Executive Officer.

AHISA’s submission to the Inquiry into legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff.