A Positive Right for Christian Schools: Operating in Accordance with Our Faith

When it comes to the success of any business or organisation, there are few more significant factors than the people you employ. You need people who are on board with your mission, who share your vision and will work towards this common goal. To employ people who don’t share this would be counterproductive. This is true of large and small businesses, non-profits, and even political parties.

It is also true that Christian schools were founded, not by the Government, but by the sacrifice of parents and churches who had a vision for schools which operated according to Christian faith.

Our faith is at the very heart of our schools. It’s what makes our schools different. It’s the reason why parents choose to send their children to Christian schools. Therefore, when it comes to employing teachers and other staff, Christian schools (and other religious education institutions) should be able to give preference to people who share their religious beliefs.

This isn’t just our opinion. This is the clear view of Justice Stephen Rothman, who led a recent review into this issue. At the Notre Dame University School of Law Annual Religious Liberty Conference on 12 April 2024 he said:

“ … religious education institutions, despite the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act or any other discrimination legislation, or any law, written or unwritten, Commonwealth or State, should be able to discriminate in favour of, or preference, on the basis of the person’s adherence to or belief in the genuinely held religion, beliefs or tenets of the religious education institution.”

Christian schools want to continue to choose staff who genuinely believe and live according to the Christian faith. But under laws being considered by the Albanese Government, schools will not be able to actively choose staff who share, and live, the same Christian faith of our school communities. That will be unlawful.

How did we get here? 

In November, 2022, the incoming Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, asked the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to commence a new inquiry into religious educational institutions and the existing exemptions granted to religious schools.

The Terms of Reference given to the ALRC made the Government’s agenda clear – remove the exemptions and restrict the ability of schools to hire staff who share their beliefs. With this as the set agenda, it is no surprise that the ALRC Report recommended the removal of the existing Commonwealth exemptions for religious schools. In their place would be a limited and very conditional set of exemptions, that would simply be unworkable, and likely result in expensive litigation.

When it comes to what Christian schools can teach, the ALRC was clear – they said staff should not be required to adopt or accept a particular religious claim or belief in order to maintain their employment. Staff should be allowed to hold and manifest other views within the school environment, even if those views are contrary to the view of the religious school. In other words, staff can act and teach their own views, contrary to the beliefs of the school.

It is inconceivable that an employer should be prevented from the reasonable expectation that their employee not directly undermine the employer’s mission and strategic objectives.  But the ALRC suggests it should be tolerated in a religious school.

The Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has taken the recommendations of the ALRC and had them turned into draft laws. Only a few people have been allowed to see this draft legislation (which is concerning in itself). But those who have seen it, such as Shadow Attorney General Michaelia Cash, warn us these laws threaten the future of Christian schools in three ways: 

  1. The new laws limit the ability of a school to actively choose, or “prefer” a particular person for their living faith when they are hiring staff. 
  2. These laws control what aspects of traditional Christian teaching may be shared with students. So, while we may believe that faith is for the whole of life, teachers may no longer be free to share the traditional teachings of our faith for every part of our lives.
  3. These laws will restrict a school being able to manage a staff member who says they hold the Christian faith of the school community, but isn’t living according to our faith in their personal life. 

These proposed laws are an outrageous attack on religious freedom. We stand by our statement published in The Australian, that the ALRC recommendations, and the draft laws, are a direct attack on faith and freedom of belief in Australia.

Christian schools want to focus on education, not be tied up with unnecessary litigation, but if these laws are successful, long and expensive legal battles are inevitable. At this critical moment, the Government needs to provide parents with certainty that the schools they choose for their children can continue to operate just as they are now.

Even Justice Rothman, who led the ALRC review, recognised that something significant was missing. He has since said that schools need a ‘positive right’ to hire staff based on their ethos as outlined above.

A ‘positive right’ for Christian schools

Faith groups have worked hard to prepare detailed legislative proposals for the Albanese Government that capture this positive right in a way that: 

  • is consistent with international law, 
  • allows the Government to meet its election commitments, and 
  • protects communities of faith.

These precisely crafted amendments would allow a religious educational institution to:

  1. Act in good faith in accordance with its beliefs in relation to conduct that threatens to undermine its religious character and ethos,
  2. Protect its ability to teach in accordance with its beliefs, and
  3. Require staff to adhere to and conduct themselves in accordance with the beliefs of the religious educational institution.

Unfortunately, no response has been provided by the Government and the future remains uncertain.

What can you do?

The combined voice of Christian school communities is powerful. This has never been more evident than in recent weeks when more than 4,000 people showed up across the country for our Faith In Our Future events. 

Our political representatives saw in person (and reported back to their parties) the level of support that exists for our schools. They heard moving stories about the difference it makes when all teachers and staff genuinely believe and live according to the Christian faith.

Please write to political representatives and ask them to ensure this positive right is provided for the future of faith in our schools.

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