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Schools focus of religious freedom debate

Ruddock panel leak turns spotlight to staff and students

The first leak of the Ruddock panel on Religious Freedom indicates that schools are the centre of their proposals. The freedom of schools to select staff, and also their student body, feature in Jewel Topsfield’s report in Fairfax media.

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“Religious schools would be guaranteed the right to turn away gay students and teachers under changes to federal anti-discrimination laws recommended by the government’s long-awaited review into religious freedom,” Topsfield reported.

Some Christian schools have a long tradition of being safe places for all kinds of students.

The Prime Minister has since described these proposals as making “no change to existing law”, according to David Crowe, also in Fairfax.

The PM is correct. The Sex Discrimination Act gives education institutions an exemption on sexual orientation, gender identity and relationship status when the discrimination is in “good faith” to avoid injury to religious susceptibilities.

The staffing issue has been widely expected to be raised by the Ruddock panel. An earlier report in Eternity predicted this, while noting some more conservative-backed ideas (such as some wedding service providers refusing to supply LGBTIQ wedding) were unlikely to be endorsed.

But the issue of discriminating against gay students was the “swing issue”, the point likely to be at the centre of controversy if the Ruddock panel recommended it.

The Australian carries a report that “one of the focuses of the review was on trying to formalise and restrict the ability of religious schools to reject gay staff or students.” The Ruddock report is quoted as saying “To the extent that some jurisdictions do not currently allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender characteristics, the panel sees no need to introduce such provisions”.

“Very few religious schools or organisations submitted that this was necessary.”

Most schools with a Christian affiliation have same-sex attracted students, even ones with affiliation to relatively conservative Christian groups such as the Sydney Anglicans.

Some Christian schools have a long tradition of being safe places for all kinds of students. Eternity knows of schools working on catering for an emerging group of transgender students.

A transgender policy to be debated at the Anglican synod in Sydney next week makes it clear that transgender children will be found in the Christian community and should receive love and care, even when Christians find children’s choices hard to approve of.

But in the next few days it may be that the media finds a Christian school which does not want LGBTIQ students. The fact this issue has emerged from the Ruddock panel may mean Christians lobbied for it.

“Christian schools should be able to insist that staff adhere to the values of the faith …” – Patrick Parkinson

“We have nothing official from the Government and will have something to say when we have something to respond to,” Freedom For Faith’s Michael Kellahan told Eternity this morning.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Conservatives has sent out a reminder that “The Yes Campaign said during last year’s marriage plebiscite that no-one else’s freedoms would be affected by the change.”

Speaking to Eternity prior to the leak, Professor Patrick Parkinson (who is Academic Dean and Head of School of University of Queensland’s Law School) picked staffing as a key religious freedom issue. “I think the number one issue for the long-term future is the freedom of faith-based organisations to employ staff or prefer to employ staff who hold to the beliefs of that faith.”

“Most Christian welfare organisations have a very diverse range of staff but at least you’d accept – I would hope – that the senior executive of a Christian welfare organisation should be people of faith. Or that the organisation could insist that they be people of that faith for employment at that level.

“Christian schools should be able to insist that staff adhere to the values of the faith in order to be able to maintain their identity as a Christian school.”

The federal government must act.” – Patrick Parkinson

Parkinson added: “It is important to recognise that the main issues for religious freedom are not in federal law. There are not currently provisions in federal law that oppress people of faith or restrict their freedoms in some inappropriate way. However, it is the federal government that has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. It is the federal government that has the national responsibility to ensure that our basic values are protected, and one of our basic values is the freedom of people to believe and manifest their belief in what they do and in their daily lives.

“That freedom is increasingly under threat. Christians and other people of faith are increasingly discriminated against: Jewish schools and other organisations have to have security guards; there is growing anti-semitism and hatred of people of faith. The Muslim community is experiencing a lot of vilification.

“Whether the Government is on the left or right of politics, it does not matter. We need to live and let live. We need to protect the right of people to go about their daily lives and hold the beliefs that they do in a respectful way. That means the federal government must act.”

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