Law reform must protect religious freedom in our schools


By Ross Fox, Director of Catholic Education Canberra and Goulburn

Thursday 4 July 2024

Catholic education is highly valued and respected in Australia and has educated millions of students for more than 200 years. In our Archdiocese, we have an outstanding 165-year history of educating and caring for children.

The Australian Law Reform Commission has proposed laws that would remove legislative sections that allow schools to preference teachers who share the same spiritual ethos as the school.

The proposed reforms by the Australian Law Reform Commission would likely remove or severely restrict the ability of Catholic schools to prioritise the employment of staff and enrolment of students from our faith background, or to operate and teach in accordance with our Catholic ethos.

The creation of a community of faith in Catholic schools goes beyond the teaching of religious education. For example, a community of faith supports students in their spiritual and moral development, it benefits mental and emotional health, provides longer-term happiness and fosters a contribution to society.

Catholic schools should be free to be Catholic and operate and teach according to our Catholic beliefs and values. Religious freedom needs the same protection as other rights in Australia.

We know that parents and carers choose our schools because they want to be a part of a community a whole school community that shares and respects their values.

Catholic schools do not discriminate based on the personal attributes of the children we enrol. We do understandably seek to maintain our religious identity and mission in the staff we employ.

Catholic schools are places of welcome to all. We are, called by the Gospel, radically inclusive. We welcome everyone who seeks a Catholic education for their child.

Our research shows that parents and carers are overwhelmingly positive about our schools and most say they are likely to recommend our schools to other parents and carers.

Many families, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are also highly attracted to the focus of the morals and values that we embed in our teaching and learning, and school community life.

As of today, there is no religious freedom legislation in Australia to uphold the rights of parents and carers to freely determine the religious and moral education of their children.

As the first educators of their children, the right of parents and carers to choose a school based on their religious beliefs is recognised in international human rights law, including Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has signed.

When a parent or carer chooses a Catholic school for their child, they are choosing the values of Catholicism, whether they are Catholic, of another faith or none.

Catholic schools are increasingly welcoming families and students from backgrounds other than Catholicism.

The ability of faith-based schools to operate, employ and teach according to our faith should rightly be recognised in every state and territory to meet the needs of all Australian students, and respect the rights of parents and carers.

Changes to anti-discrimination laws must go hand-in-hand with the introduction of laws to protect religious freedom.