Increasingly hostile environment facing faith based schools in Australia

John Steenhof, Principal Lawyer at Human Rights Law Alliance, spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Parliamentary Friends of Religious Schools and Faith Communities, at Parliament House in Canberra on November 13.

The group is co-chaired by ALP Senator Deborah O’Neill and Liberal MP Julian Leeser.

The event was attended by leaders of Anglican, Catholic, Christian, Islamic, Lutheran and Jewish schooling sectors, as well as representatives from a range of faith communities.

John spoke about the importance of religious schools in Australia and the current challenges facing faith-based schools.

He referred to Australia’s commitments as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and in particular Article 18.4, which protects the right of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in accordance with their own convictions.

Christian schools are communities of formation in which parents in partnership with schools can opt for education based on a particular religious ethos. Religious education is concerned with more than just imparting facts and curriculum content. It provides opportunities for faith communities to come together to provide an authentic faith-based education and educational environment where every aspect reflects and models the faith of the community.

John reflected on the modern obsession with individualism, autonomy and equality, as well as 50 years of discrimination legislation in Australia, which has led to a distortion of the human rights framework, and which views everything through the lens of non-discrimination.

In addition, he outlined the significant challenges facing faith-based schools in Australia, especially the Australian Law Reform Commission’s push to remove religious exemptions from Christian schools.

As the controversy surrounding the Citipointe Christian College earlier this year demonstrates, faith-based schools are operating within an increasingly hostile culture, in which the Christian teachings on sexuality and identity are facing particular scrutiny and criticism.

The College was attacked for releasing an enrolment contract with parents that included clear and unambiguous statements of orthodox Christian doctrines about sexual orientation and gender identity that are part of its wider orthodox Christian beliefs. Following a public outcry in response to a targeted campaign from journalists, activists and the commentariat, it was forced to retract the contract. 

HRLA continues to advocate for genuine protections for religious schools to effectively operate and teach according to their religious beliefs and ethos, ensuring that religious freedom is properly protected in Australia.

The creation of this parliamentary group is an important step in establishing a vital platform for representatives from religious schools and faith communities to collaborate and enhance their advocacy within the parliament.