Queensland government flags removal of faith protections in Queensland

When Citipointe Christian College sent parents an enrolment contract that set out a clear and unambiguous statement of orthodox Christian doctrines, the backlash from activists and the media was swift and brutal.

The school retracted the contract, but the damage was done. It was accused of discriminating against students and staff on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity, and criticised for using existing exemptions in anti-discrimination laws to ensure it could both employ staff who adhered to their religious beliefs and choose not to employ staff who openly acted contrary to those beliefs.

The Queensland Government is now stating it intends to repeal and replace the current Anti-Discrimination Act. It has signalled its support in principle for all 122 recommendations contained in the Queensland Human Rights Commission’s report.

Among others, the recommendations include repealing protections that allow schools like Citipointe and other religious organisations to employ Christians who adhere to and uphold their religious ethos. Some are pointing to the Citipointe saga as justification for making these changes.

These protections would be replaced by a new “genuine occupational requirement” test that allows discrimination in employment only on grounds of religious beliefs and only if “the teaching, observance or practice of a particular religion is a genuine occupational requirement”. This would limit such selection to teachers of religion, for example, but not maths teachers of other staff. The QHRC recommends specifically excluding positions such as science teacher from these protections.

The report significantly threatens religious freedom in Queensland. If the QHRC’s recommendations are made into law, existing protections for Christians in the state will be seriously eroded. The ability of faith-based schools to hire staff that support the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of the school will be severely curtailed.

As all parents of school children understand, it is not just in religious classes that faith and values are imparted to students. Teachers are role models, and many discussions occur between students and teachers in a variety of circumstances throughout the school day, and during the teaching of all subjects. Many religious schools want to ensure that all teachers and staff support and model the ethos, faith, and values of the school throughout the whole educational experience.

To assert that the “genuine occupational requirement” only extends to teaching religion demonstrates a naive understanding of the purpose and function of religious schools.

All parents have the right “to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions”, under Article 18(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This announcement from the Queensland government represents a direct threat to the religious freedom of parents with respect to the education of their children and underscores the importance of implementing laws in Australia to give effect to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Without federal laws that protect religious freedom rights, the states and territories in Australia are forging ahead with amendments to anti-discrimination laws that severely limit and strip away protections for people of faith.