What’s next for religious freedom

John Sandeman breaks down a hot-button issue

1. A narrow window

Issuing an urgent call for Christians to pray for religious freedom legislation, Glenn Davies, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, told a January gathering that there would be only a narrow window to get legislation through the federal parliament. It will sit for only a few days before the next federal election in May. Davies was addressing the NSW/ACT 2019 Church Missionary Society (CMS) Summer School, a key meeting place for evangelical Christians. The Archbishop has made a good call.

Chance of prayer: 100%

Eternity understands attempts at achieving a negotiated outcome before parliament sits are continuing.

Chance of negotiated outcome: 5%.

2. Senator Wong’s bill 1

Labor’s Senator Penny Wong has moved a bill to remove the ability of schools to discriminate against LGBT students – leaving the issue of school staff for later. The Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee took submissions with a report due back by February 11. An Australian Christian Lobby submission argues to keep the discriminatory provisions “until such time as more comprehensive protections are enacted”.

In a lengthy submission, Dr Alex Deagon from QUT (in a private capacity) argues that the bill be delayed in the interest of further debate.

Chance of the bill getting up before the election: 50%.

3. Senator Wong’s bill 2

Senator Jacinta Collins, Labor Victoria, moved amendments to Senator Wong’s bill – which Wong accepted. They state the Senate is of the opinion that nothing in the Sex Discrimination Act will make it unlawful to “engage in teaching activity” that is “in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed” with the authority of a religious educational institution.

Frank Brennan says Collins’ words should form part of the law.

Chance of strengthening the Collins amendments: 50%.

4. Coalition pledge

Morrison Government says it will enact laws to protect Australians from religious discrimination and add a religious freedom commissioner.

Chance of the Morrison policy passing before the election: 30%.

5. Breakthrough – The lawyers meet

The prestigious Australian Law Journal (ALJ) has called for papers for a conference on Saturday April 6, to consider the future of religious freedom in Australia. This will attract heavyweight papers from legal experts of all shades of opinion.

Chance of the conference boosting religious freedom as an election issue: 100%.

6. Election 2019

Most likely dates for the federal election are May 11 and 18.

Chance of a Shorten Government: 60%.


School staffing will become the hot issue post-election. What compromise could be made?

1. An unwanted default setting

The “inherent requirements” test gives schools the right to discriminate in the case of staff whose job involves religious teaching. It can mean that judges or anti-discrimination panels get a big say in setting the boundaries.

2. The deacon option

Give teachers a religious “office.” Anglicans, for example, could ordain some teachers as deacons. Catholics could have “third order” lay members of religious communities (sometimes called “oblates”). Uniting and Pentecostals could reinvent the role of deacon. Baptists might need to rethink their diaconate.

3. A quota system

This could vary across schools with some schools having few “religious” positions and other schools could have a majority of “religious staff.”

4. School staff required to uphold religious tenets …

… or be at least required not to speak against them. Without this right, schools will lose their religion. This forms part of Labor’s preferred option. But this system has the weakness of the US military’s old  “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules.

5. The status quo

Some schools insisting on having all staff as Christians are unlikely to survive.

6. Labour contract system

Some schools use contracts to enforce lifestyle rules. Only likely to survive if used with restraint.

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