PM reaffirms commitment to allow religious schools to hire staff based on faith
Australia/February 15, 2023/By: Paul Karp/Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
Albanese says Labor made its position ‘clear a long time ago’ after religious groups reject proposal as having ‘severe limits’
Anthony Albanese has reiterated that Labor will respect religious schools’ right to select staff based on faith, after widespread backlash from religious groups to a proposal to limit their hiring and firing powers.
On Monday an alliance of religious leaders rejected a proposal by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to allow religious preference only where “the teaching, observance or practice of religion is a genuine occupational requirement”.
The group, including the Sydney Anglican and Catholic churches, Greek Orthodox church, the National Imams Council, and Executive Council of Australia Jewry, wrote a letter to the attorney general arguing the “severe limits” proposed by the ALRC went beyond its terms of reference.
In January, Guardian Australia revealed the Catholic education sector would oppose the ALRC’s bid to remove existing exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act that enable discrimination and replace it with a narrower right to give “more favourable treatment on the ground of religion” for hiring employees where it is “proportionate in all the circumstances”.
The proposal in the ALRC consultation paper would align the federal laws more closely to Victoria and Tasmania, which protect non-teaching staff such as administrative staff from discrimination and allow faith-based discrimination only where it is an occupational requirement.
In response to a question about the controversy on Tuesday the prime minister told Labor’s caucus that “we made our position clear a long time ago that faith-based schools can employ people of their own faith”.
Before the election Labor committed to protect all students “from discrimination on any grounds” and 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”.
In the letter, seen by Guardian Australia, the religious leaders praise the Albanese government for asking the ALRC to balance the right not to be discriminated against based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy with the freedom of religious schools “to build a community of faith”.
But they said the ALRC proposal would introduce an uncertain “new test into employment law” and put the onus “on the school to prove that it satisfied the test”, acting as a “deterrent” from giving preference to one candidate.
“[Religious schools] 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,” they said.
The shadow education minister, Sarah Henderson, and the shadow attorney general, Julian Leeser, accused the government of “breaking their commitment to schools and parents on this issue”.
Leeser told Sky News the ALRC plan could mean schools can only mandate that the “minister of religion and religious education teacher” be of their faith.
A spokesperson for the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said the ALRC inquiry was a “crucial first step” towards implementing its election commitment, but noted the government will not consider its response until it has reported.
“The ALRC is an independent agency,” the spokesperson said. “It is now conducting its inquiry and has not finalised its advice to government.”
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