Christian schools respond to a tough new law

Not just in Victoria but around Australia, the Christian School movement is responding to the Andrews Government’s much stricter laws about employing Christian staff.

At the Freedom For Faith National Conference this week, Mark Spencer, Policy Director of Christian Schools Australia, outlined the effects of the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Act 2021 introduced by the Victorian Government. This law invokes an “inherent requirement test” to religious schools preferencing people of faith.

For example, schools are “looking at whether their Statements of Faith sufficiently encompass their beliefs, especially for those schools who may not have looked at their constitutions for a while,” Spencer tells Eternity.

“I think I gave the example of receptionist position where the role description focussed on (some) of the key practical tasks involved – yet there had always been an understanding that the role would involve participation in the prayer and spiritual life of the school, represent the Christian life of the school to initial enquiries, be a pastoral support to families coming into the front office, offering support and prayer to students seeking first aid treatment.”

With the conviction that a school community with all Christian staff is more effective at passing on the faith to students, “Christian Schools” aim to employ only Christian Staff.

(Eternity is using the term “Christian Schools” because this is the term mostly low-fee or moderate-fee schools that want to employ only Christians use. It is not to imply that other schools are not Christian.)

Christian Schools to revisit constitutions and HR processes in light of Vic Govt legislation

Spencer led the Freedom For Faith conference through parts of the explanatory memorandum for the Act, contrasting the aims of the law with how a Christian School wants to operate.

“In most religious schools it would be an inherent requirement of a religious education position that employees must closely conform to the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the school’s religion,” the explanatory memorandum (EM) says. “On the other hand, a support position, such as a gardener or maintenance worker, is unlikely to have religious conformity as an inherent requirement of their role.”

The Christian Schools are re-writing their job descriptions to document the staff-student relationships involved in Spencer’s example.

Another example of the EM raised by Spencer concerned prayer and what happens when a teacher loses their faith.

“For example, conformity with religion could be an inherent requirement in a school teaching role where teachers generally lead students in prayer,” the EM says. “A teacher may change their religious beliefs so it is no longer appropriate for them to lead prayers. In determining whether dismissal is a reasonable and proportionate action, the school could consider, as part of their assessment, whether another teacher could take on this aspect of the role.”

This EM statement suggests that more than a formal prayer to start the day or a lesson is required to claim an inherent requirement on the grounds of prayer.

Another part of the EM suggests that using non-Christians as casual teachers would mean a school has demonstrated there is no inherent requirement for teachers of faith.

“…it may not be reasonable and proportionate to dismiss a teacher who is willing to convey the religious views of the school, even if they differ from their own.”

A concern to a broader range of schools, whether religious teaching is authentic, is raised in another part of the EM. A “teacher continues to promote the religious views of the school on marriage to students but also tells students that there are those in the broader community that hold different views” is a scenario raised by the EM. “Depending on the circumstances, it may not be reasonable and proportionate to dismiss a teacher who is willing to convey the religious views of the school, even if they differ from their own.” This scenario would be a difficult situation for the teacher and the school.

These are tough rules for Christian Schools, but it is evident these schools are determined to stick to their vision of a community based on a Christian staff. Spencer points out that these schools are growing with increased enrolments and long waiting lists. “Capacity is our problem,” he says.

Other religious schools, including conservative evangelical ones, employ a broader range of staff, preferencing people of faith for crucial positions.

The other side of this story is the staff who have had to leave schools because they don’t meet the school requirements. Spencer told the FFF conference that heterosexuals’ activity outside of marriage was a chief reason for discipline in the small number of issues relating to faith and belief. One unintended consequence of the Victorian law might be that schools tighten their rules, leading to the dismissal of staff.

If it was made clear that the schools wanting to hire only Christian, Jewish or Muslim staff is possibly only ten per cent of the independent sector – despite their growth – this would remove some of the heat in this debate.

The Federal Election

The Labor Party tells Eternity that they will not adopt the Victorian model. Still, the example of the law passed by the Andrews government demonstrates the difficulty of balancing competing human rights. That task is inherent in their policy (pun intended).

Labor wants to give schools the right to preference staff of faith – and protect other groups in the community against discrimination.

The Coalition has now announced that it will pass the unamended Religious Discrimination Bill if re-elected, but Bridget Archer – one of the five Liberal rebels who voted against the bill – is adamant she will continue to vote it down.