Religious schools across Australia will be free to hire religious staff to maintain their ethos in accordance with a publicly available policy under a bill introduced to parliament on Thursday.
The Religious Discrimination Bill, first promised in the wake of the same-sex marriage debate in 2017, aims to ensure Australians are protected from discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity – just as they are protected from discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race and disability.
In 2019, a first draft was released but the bill subsequently saw several delays. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced a revised version of the bill to parliament on Thursday, declaring that Australians would now have “a bigger space to be themselves, who they believe what they believe, free of discrimination, coercion and judgement”.
“The bill recognises that religious bodies religious schools must be free to uphold the tenets of their faith, and the ethos that makes this school, a community and is a recognition of the sacrifices parents make to educate their children in accordance with their values and beliefs, and the choices they have made for their children’s education,” Morrison said.
“As many schools have said throughout this process, faith is caught not taught. The bill protects the fundamental right for religious schools to hire religious staff to maintain their religious ethos in accordance with a publicly available policy.”
Significantly, the PM pointed out that this protection “will be able to override state or territory laws which seeks to interfere with that right”.
“Nothing in this bill allows for any form of discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. You won’t find anything of that nature in this bill. Such discrimination has no place in our education system,” he said.
Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, says that while the revised bill protects the “critical right” of religious schools to employ people of the same faith, it won’t allow discrimination on other traits, such as sexuality.
“That wouldn’t be lawful under our bill,” Minister Tudge told Sky News.
“So, the bill will certainly allow religious schools to employ people of their own faith – now, this is a critical principle at stake here, because … you can’t be a Catholic school if you can’t employ Catholic teachers, you can’t be a Muslim school without employing Muslim teachers.”
However, Labor education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, said she supports religious freedom in principle but wants more time for parliament to examine the legislation and its implications for teachers and students in religious schools.
“I think it’s important that we take the time to examine the legislation properly and make sure that those protections, particularly for students, are still there.”
National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) executive director, Jacinta Collins, welcomed the bill and its provisions, also acknowledging the bipartisan support expressed by the leaders of the major parties to the legislation.
“Governments, federal and state, should respect and protect the religious freedom of families who choose to send their children to a school where they will be taught in accordance with their values and beliefs,” Collins told The Educator.
“The legislation doesn’t change anything in existing arrangements and is not about extending discrimination regarding other civil or political rights. This is about providing a balanced, positive approach to protecting religious rights as we do for other rights in Australia.”