Warning from religious leaders falls on deaf ears

In a concerning admission, the head of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) inquiry into anti-discrimination laws NSW Supreme Court judge Stephen Rothman has told a conference on religious freedom at the University of Notre Dame that a letter signed by Australia’s most senior spiritual leaders expressing concern about the ALRC proposals has had “very little impact” on his thinking.

These religious leaders are major stakeholders in the inquiry, representing close to 90 per cent of all religious schools in the country, which will be directly affected by the outcomes of the inquiry.

John Steenhof, Principal Lawyer at Human Rights Law Alliance, has said the proposals put forward by the ALRC represent an “existential threat” to Christian education:

We express real concern at some assumptions, reflected in the consultation paper, concerning an alleged propensity for Christian teaching to be inherently discriminatory and to cause other harms.

“The Consultation Paper is written from a perspective which reflects anti-Christian assumptions.

“To those familiar with Christian schooling it seems far-fetched to suggest that Christian teaching of the sort provided in most Christian schools could expose students to discrimination or other risk.

“There is a serious perspective mismatch between anti-Christian ideological assertion and reality, which needs to be bridged.”

Legal scholar Professor Patrick Parkinson has written to the ALRC to express his concerns:

“Ignoring almost every submission made over the last few years by faith groups to multiple inquiries, failing to mention mainstream positions on international human rights that contradict its views, and citing almost none of the relevant Australian literature from a religious freedom perspective, the Commission has come up with a consultation paper that adopts an aggressive policy to secularise faith-based schools and to deprive them of their purpose.

We have engaged with these inquiries in good faith, and there is much in our submissions and scholarly writings which draws upon a thorough analysis of human rights principles.

Yet there is scarcely any evidence in this consultation paper that the authors of this Consultation Paper have read anything we have written.”

In addition, Professor Parkinson has said that proposals made in the Paper “cannot be reconciled with the policies that Labor took to the election and the promises it made”.

The Human Rights Law Alliance has warned the ALRC that if the proposals are implemented, they are likely to produce radical, adverse and permanent changes in the character and operation of many schools with a Christian ethos. They may also become targets of litigation by activists, including those who aim to eradicate Christian beliefs on marriage, sexuality and identity.

HRLA has recommended that the government reject the proposals in the Consultation Paper in their entirety and reconsider the question of federal exemptions for religious educational institutions in conjunction with its proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

Submissions to the inquiry have now closed, and its final report is due to the Attorney-General on 21 April 2023.

We trust that the efforts of all those who took the time to make a submission to this important inquiry will have a positive impact on the final report that is presented to the Attorney-General. By providing thoughtful and constructive feedback, we can only hope that the ALRC considers the perspectives of all stakeholders in this debate, given that the stakes are indeed very high for religious education in this country.