‘Political bushfire’ looming over religious freedom

An alliance of the nation’s most senior spiritual leaders, including more than 30 leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths has “sounded the alarm” about the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recent proposals to strip religious schools of protections.

The fallout from the ALRC’s recommendations has the potential to cause a “political bushfire” for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, given the federal government’s previous assurances of their “commitment to protect teachers from discrimination at work, while maintaining the right of religious schools to preference people of their faith in the selection of staff”, which was welcomed by religious leaders at the time.

The group has written to the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, warning the future of religious education in Australia is under threat:

“Faith based schools in Australia have long been free to give preference to employing staff who share or are willing to support the faith and beliefs according to which the school is conducted. They do not seek the right to discriminate on the basis of a protected attribute, but simply to be able to employ staff who share or are willing to uphold the religious beliefs of the school. The ALRC is proposing to greatly restrict this freedom by requiring religious schools to employ teachers who may not share or support the religious beliefs of the organisation, and whose employment can only be terminated where they ‘actively undermine’ the religious ethos of the school” [Emphasis added].

Further, the group is concerned about the likelihood of future litigation:

“If this proposal was implemented, it would introduce a new test into employment law, whose application and meaning are far from certain. In any given case, the onus would be on the school to prove that it satisfied the test. This would greatly expand the scope for future litigation, and would thus have a deterrent effect on any religious school contemplating engaging a candidate for employment who professes the same religion as the school, in preference to other candidates”.

Signatories to the letter include the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher; the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli; the Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel; Australian National Imams Council president, Shadi Alsuleiman; Islamic Schools Association of Australia chair, Abdullah Khan; Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executive, Peter Wertheim; Australian Christian Lobby managing director, Martyn Iles; and Human Rights Law Alliance managing director, John Steenhof.

The ALRC is seeking responses to the consultation paper by 24 February 2023. In addition to accepting formal written submissions, the Commission is also inviting responses by way of a confidential online survey which can be accessed here.

We would urge everyone who is concerned about this attack on religious freedom in Australia to make their views known to the Commission, either by way of written submission or participation in the survey.