Religious freedom in schools

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When Parliament resumes next month, one outstanding item of business will be Senator Penny Wong's private member's bill dealing with religious schools and their capacity to 'discriminate' against students on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Next Monday is the last day for the receipt of submissions to the parliamentary committee considering the bill.

Senator Penny Wong (Michael Masters/Getty Images)I support Wong's bill subject to one proviso. I agree with her that religious schools should not be able to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But I think religious schools should remain free to teach their doctrine respectfully and reasonably. And the law should make that perfectly clear. We all need to concede that some religious teachings can be confronting and upsetting. But it is not for the state to rewrite the Bible or Koran.

Let's consider an example that has nothing to do with sexuality. Jesus was fearless in his condemnation of wealth: 'Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.' Church schools have to remain free to teach this doctrine even to the wealthiest children privileged to attend private schools with high fees. This doctrine can be taught respectfully and reasonably even though it is in stark contrast to the lifestyle of many of these students and their families.

So too, the teaching of Jesus about marriage and divorce. Yes, there is a large number of students from blended families who have experienced divorce, and there will be an increasing number of students from families with same sex married parents. Jesus' teaching on divorce has been countercultural for a long time; so now, his teaching on marriage.

A Christian school must be guaranteed the freedom to teach what Jesus taught, respectfully, reasonably and counterculturally — respectfully because the dignity of all persons must be affirmed, reasonably because a school has a fundamental educational purpose, and counterculturally because many of the things Jesus taught will never appear in the political manifestos of the Liberal Party or the Labor Party.

First, I will set out some background. I was a member of the expert panel chaired by Philip Ruddock. Our report was presented to the Turnbull government in May 2018. It was released finally by the Morrison government just before Christmas.

As an expert panel, we realised that we held a variety of religious, political and social views. One day at hearings, Ruddock jested with a group appearing before us, saying, 'You have to learn to compromise in life. For a long time, Fr Brennan refused even to speak to me.' I do admit that he and I had significant differences of opinion when he was John Howard's Minister for Immigration. I am a supporter of a human rights act. Fellow panel member Professor Nicholas Aroney is an opponent of a human rights act. Despite those sorts of differences, we all worked hard and well to reach unanimity on the legal and policy issues before us.

 

"These are Labor's very words. So why not put them in Penny Wong's bill?"

 

As an expert panel, we noted that four of the nine Australian jurisdictions (including the Commonwealth) allowed religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation; four did not; and then Tasmania allowed discrimination against new applicants but not against existing students at a school. Not being elected politicians, we did not see it as our role to propose major policy changes, but rather to recommend legislative changes which could be expected to win broad rational support across the political spectrum, honouring the principles of federal-state relations. We noted in our report:

'To the extent that some jurisdictions do not currently allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender characteristics, the panel sees no need to introduce such provisions. Very few religious schools or organisations submitted that this was necessary. To the extent, however, that certain jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth, do allow this type of discrimination, the panel believes the exceptions should be limited by the requirement that the discrimination be in accordance with a published policy which is grounded in the religious doctrines of the school.'

We then went on to set out a list of restrictions which culminated in a recommendation that discrimination be possible only if it were consistent with the school's religious tenets, set out in a published policy, in the best interests of the child, and applicable only to prospective students. We thought it would be all but impossible for any school to jump all those hoops. But if they could, so be it.

In part, we took this cautious approach because it was Labor as recently as 2013 that introduced the amendment to section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act omitting 'marital status', and substituting 'sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status' in relation to the provision of education services. When introducing the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, the Labor Attorney General Mark Dreyfus told Parliament:

'The introduction of the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status into the Sex Discrimination Act, in conjunction with the existing complaints provisions of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, will provide a complaints mechanism for people who consider they have been discriminated against on these bases. The Australian Human Rights Commission will be able to investigate and attempt to conciliate such complaints. The bill also amends existing exemptions as appropriate to reflect the new grounds. This includes exemptions for religious bodies in relation to employment and the provision of education that have been in place for many years. These exemptions will continue under this bill and encompass the new grounds.'

When speaking on this bill in the Senate, Senator Louise Pratt, a long time campaigner for gay rights, said: 'I also think that we need to engage with the philosophical and legal framework behind the way we integrate existing acts together. I hope that the consolidation is something that will happen in the future, and I am assured that it is something that the government remains committed to. As part of this, I do believe we should be considering whether people who hold religious beliefs also need protection from discrimination. I also believe we need to tighten up on religious exemptions.' The Ruddock Committee did both. We recommended a Religious Discrimination Act and we recommended a tightening of the religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act.

Senator Penny Wright for the Greens unsuccessfully moved that 'this Bill's preservation of sections 37 and 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and indeed its extension of these exemptions for religious bodies to discriminate on the grounds of newly protected attributes, represents another missed opportunity'. What the Greens were proposing in 2013 as a voice in the wilderness has now become the received wisdom in our Parliament less than six years later.

During the Wentworth by-election, both sides of politics committed to getting rid of any special exemption for religious schools being able to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Penny Wong's bill now attempts to do that.

Second, I will propose a way forward. The Ruddock committee did not want religious schools discriminating adversely against kids. But at the same time, we wanted religious schools to be able to teach their doctrine reasonably and respectfully. And we wanted religious schools within reason to be able to constitute their own faith environment just as a political party creates its own political environment — by employing staff and attracting volunteers who get the message and want to proclaim it and enact it. Just as the Greens ought not be required to employ a coal merchant, a Christian school ought not be required to employ an anti-Christian activist. We did not think you should be able to sack a teacher just because they entered into a same sex marriage.

As I read Wong, she wants much the same thing. In her second reading speech, Wong said: 'Labor wants to be clear — nothing in this bill would compromise the ability of churches to continue to uphold their religious teachings, whether in the classroom or through the enforcement of school rules. The Sex Discrimination Act protects that right. And I emphasise that this bill would not affect the operation of the indirect discrimination provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act, which would continue to protect the ability of faith-based educational institutions to impose reasonable conditions, requirements or practices on students in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religious or creed.'

Labor's Jacinta Collins backed up Wong with the affirmation, 'We believe that our amendments, and our statements in the explanatory memorandum, respond to much of what the religious community has raised in relation to moving forward, with regards to students. We are open to addressing any outstanding matters as we move forward with other matters around discrimination, but, most importantly, the Labor Party is keen to progress the issues around a positive affirmation of religious freedom.'

I think this objective can be readily achieved by adding a new clause to section 21 of the Sex Discrimination Act:

It is no detriment to a student for an educational authority to engage in teaching activity if that activity:

(a) is in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed; and

(b) is done by, or with the authority of, an educational authority that is conducted in accordance with those doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings.

In this section:

teaching activity means any kind of instruction of a student by a person employed or otherwise engaged by an educational authority.

These are Labor's very words. So why not put them in Penny Wong's bill? When Parliament returns, let's get it done promptly, reasonably and respectfully.

 

 

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ was a member of the Religious Freedom Review chaired by Philip Ruddock.

Main image: Senator Penny Wong (Michael Masters/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, human rights, same sex marriage, religious freedom, Penny Wong

 

 

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The Christmas break gave us all an opportunity to calm down. Frank's exposition once again cools our fevered brows with the gentle breeze of rational and informed thought. Now let's do it and move on.
Joan Seymour | 15 January 2019


Thank you for taking the time to provide this explanation. It is not easy to understand the many machinations at play.
Patrick | 16 January 2019


The elephant in the room here is that faith based schools depend on government funding. I think we are failing to appreciate the moral convictions of others (in this instance fellow Australians who genuinely believe that religion is not a force for good and should therefore not be supported from the public purse). Funny how often, while vociferous in defence of our own freedoms, we totally ignore those of others. On a more specific level we are also conveniently ignoring that in practice refusal to enrol a student is at least as likely to stem from the sexual orientation of their patents as of the student.
Margaret | 16 January 2019


Frank, as I understand your legislative proposal, any teaching activity would be considered non-discriminatory if that teaching “is in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed”, effectively legislating a right to promote discrimination to students in accordance with a religious doctrine or teaching. What if a religion taught ‘in good faith’ racist or sexist doctrines such as women being subservient to men, or black races being of inferior intelligence, or of homosexuality being ‘contrary to the natural law’ and ‘objectively disordered’ (Catholic Catechism, nn.2357-8)? Your proposal would seem to allow religious freedom to trump human rights at considerable cost in society to those against whom discriminatory teaching is allowed.
Peter Johnstone | 16 January 2019


I don't think such an inclusion as Fr Brennan suggests will settle an issue which is a small component of a much wider movement. The existence of Catholic and religious schools as they are currently funded is an affront to a very large number of Australians. The anti religion movement won't be pacified quite so easily.
Harry Who | 16 January 2019


Too much time is wasted by politicians and their appointed, frequently partisan, committees on serving vested interests rather than governing the country in the interests of all. Alice in Wonderland and The Emperor's New Clothes, once outlandish yet entertaining fairy tales, have become reality in the circus performances of current politicians.
john frawley | 16 January 2019


Thank you Frank. I wonder though reading the Quran where supremacist verses are taught whether you could in fact say it is no detriment to the student at the footstool of the teacher: eg: Supremacy of Islam The Quran emphasizes the supremacy of Islam as well as Islam's messenger (Muhammad): "Indeed those who are opposing Allah and His Messenger are bound to be humiliated. The Almighty has ordained: I and My Messengers shall always prevail. Indeed Allah is Mighty and Powerful. [Quran 58:20] It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religion, although they who associate others with Allah dislike it. [Quran 9:33] and violence: El Mutakhab: "So conditioned, when you people encounter those deniers of Allah, in combat, strike their necks to inflict death, and subdue the living at their peril, keep them in confinement and restrict their movements until hostilities have ceased and your enemies have laid down their arms. There and then you either set the captives free for nothing at all in return or for a ransom or for the freedom of Muslim captives." Could the amendment be a rod for our backs?
Francis Armstrong | 16 January 2019


As one who attempts to be a follower of Jesus and to understand the wisdom He teaches, it makes me wonder how these legalistic approaches to problems of laws, religious or secular, that we make fit within the context he wanted to create. His wisdom subverts our human litigious approach. His emphasis was not on beliefs, but on faith and love; not on dualism but on compassion. The old problem of expected blind acceptance still plagues Catholic education. Students today crave understanding for and against reasons behind doctrines, and the freedom to decide with an informed and experienced conscience. In the wider church theologians are exploring such an approach to questions of sexuality, divorce etc., but few are even aware of this. For the sake of passing on mature spirituality which does not say 'believe this or else you're out,' it is the church and its catechesis which needs reforming. Thinking students don't care for such legalism; most parents have never been told of such theological research.
John O'D | 16 January 2019


Peter Johnstone, why single out Catholic teaching on homosexuality as" contrary to the natural law" and "objectively disordered"? Does not natural law morality hold the same view of heterosexual fornication and adultery? Given this equitable status, how is it a case of religious freedom trumping human rights, as you assert?
John | 17 January 2019


John, thanks for posting your question. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is but one of the examples I gave. My point is that a good society should not legitimise all religious teachings regardless of their impact on society. I gave examples of possible teachings that could have a detrimental impact on societal relationships, particularly racist or sexist doctrines, such as women being subservient to men, or black races being of inferior intelligence, or the Catholic Catechism’s dubious claim of homosexuality being ‘contrary to the natural law’ and ‘objectively disordered’ (Catholic Catechism, nn.2357-8). Most Catholics would reject this teaching if they knew of it, as indicated by polls at the time of the marriage equality survey. Personally, I am shocked that Catholic students, particularly LGBTI students, could be required to listen to such Catholic teaching; for LGBTI students, the mental health impacts are grave. I am concerned that the Parliament could legislate to protect the teaching of religious ideologies that have no place in a society respectful of human rights. I have invited Frank to explain his thinking on this concern.
Peter Johnstone | 17 January 2019


Peter Johnstone, while leaving Frank to speak for himself, but as a same-sex oriented person myself, I see no contradiction in Frank's position. Placing a moratorium on teaching students in Catholic schools about its doctrine in regard to same-sex attraction would be akin to unleashing students from any school onto a world in which widespread disagreement continues to exist on this question. Where indeed do we honour the principle of open inquiry if we gag one of the many parties contributing to the debate from its right to be heard? As a teacher educator and researcher, I know of several non-Catholic jurisdictions universally, both public and private, in which it is a necessary and acceptable form of pedagogic practice to inform all students of the variety of opinions on this matter, without fear of caving into the censorious views of those at both ends of the spectrum, who would choose to privilege one view at the expense of the other. This opinion also applies to the reservations expressed by Margaret and Harry in respect of the importance they attach to the views of those who would choose to exclude Catholic schools from the public funding that they almost universally receive.
Michael Furtado | 17 January 2019


Michael Furtado, I have no difficulty with a “form of pedagogic practice to inform all students of the variety of opinions on this matter” – the question here is rather about “the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed” being represented to students as fact to be observed, or as you describe it, “the censorious views of those . . . who would choose to privilege one view at the expense of the other.” As I have said, I am shocked that Catholic students, particularly LGBTI students, could be required to listen to such Catholic teaching taught as fact. I am aware from LGBTI friends, as you must be aware, of the grave mental health impacts for LGBTI students and I am concerned that the Parliament not legislate to protect the teaching of religious ideologies that have no place in a society respectful of human rights.
Peter Johnstone | 17 January 2019


Peter, my starting point is Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which provides: 1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. 2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. 3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. 4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. It is my understanding that the freedom in community and in public to manifest one’s religion in teaching includes the freedom in a church school to teach respectfully and reasonably the doctrine of the church. That freedom ought only be curtailed by law to the extent necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. I think it would be a gross overreach by the state for government or parliament to start deciding which particular doctrines to ‘legitimise’ or delegitimise, in part dependent on ‘their impact on society’. I think ‘a society respectful of human rights’ should allow religious communities a significant margin of appreciation in the teaching of doctrine, even those doctrines which some find unpalatable, hurtful, or outdated.
Frank Brennan SJ | 17 January 2019


Peter, I acknowledge that there is a pedagogical consideration (involving "What?", "When?" and "How?") for parents and schools in communicating Catholic teaching on sexuality, a recognition evident in the Church's pastoral guidelines (and, I'd hope, in classrooms). However, I believe there is also value in presenting natural law thinking to students at an appropriate stage, exposing them to its clarity and depth, and equipping them with the intellectual resilience that can assist their moral and spiritual development beyond emotivism in ethical response. Personally, I have been impressed by the effectiveness of works such as Peter Kreeft's "The Best Things in Life", written specifically for senior students - a book in which Kreeft examines contemporary issues by application of the Socratic method.
John | 17 January 2019


Frank has some good and clear things to say. And there has to be a path forward. But as I read some of the comments below, why is it an "elephant in the room" to say that these Christian schools receive "public" funding. Where does this mysterious "public" funding come from? Ah, that's right, the public, the actual public, many of whom are religious and send their children to religious schools, and many who are NOT religious, but send their kids to those schools anyway because the local high schools are in disarray (and not simply to do with funding, and more generally to do with ethos). So this "public" funding that the government gets is not the governments to decide how it is used, because if the government uses it unwisely or wastefully, that same public votes the government out and gets another one. And if truth be told, the average parent of a low to middle fee paying religious school bank-rolls the government to the tune of about fifty percent of the cost of their child/ren's education. The government is not stupid - it knows it would go broke trying to fund every student. And the public is not stupid (most of it is not anyway), because they know that the key to a good education is for parents to have choice. Unless of course people on this good site think it is the state and the state alone that has that responsibility, or is even fully capable of carrying it out.
Stephen McAlpine | 17 January 2019


fr frank, as per usual your clear and concise explanation of this important debate , you certainly have put things into perspective, i hope that it works.
maryellen flynn | 17 January 2019


So Fr. Brennan says (today) it is not for the State to rewrite the bible. But he sat on the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review whose Report makes no reference to the Commonwealth's re-writing of Christ's teaching on marriage. Does he now expect to be taken seriously on any religious freedom issue?
Linda Nolan | 17 January 2019


Frank, thanks for the considered response. I think we agree that the key issue is as expressed in Article 18.3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” I also agree strongly with your suggestion that that “the freedom in community and in public to manifest one’s religion in teaching includes the freedom in a church school to teach respectfully and reasonably the doctrine of the church” and that “(t)hat freedom ought only be curtailed by law to the extent necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The problem arises when the doctrine itself is neither respectful nor reasonable. I am not suggesting as you imply that “government or parliament . . . start deciding which particular doctrines to ‘legitimise’ or delegitimise.” I am arguing rather against your proposal that the State positively legislate that any teaching activity would be considered non-discriminatory if that teaching “is in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed”, effectively legislating a right to promote discrimination to students in accordance with a disrespectful and unreasonable religious doctrine or teaching regardless of Article 18.3. As I replied to John (and I have no argument with his subsequent response), a good society should not protect and legitimise all religious teachings regardless of their impact on society; that applies particularly where those teachings adversely affect the “public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” (Art.18.3). I gave examples of possible teachings that could have a detrimental impact on societal relationships, particularly racist or sexist doctrines, such as women being subservient to men, or black races being of inferior intelligence, or the Catholic Catechism’s dubious claim of homosexuality being ‘contrary to the natural law’ and ‘objectively disordered’ (Catholic Catechism, nn.2357-8). These are teachings that affect the “public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
Peter Johnstone | 18 January 2019


New harm could be done to the ‘health’ (ICCPR 18, 3) of relevant students by legislating to make explicit the already implicit right of religious schools to continue teaching doctrines condemning LGBTI lifestyles as ‘objectively morally disordered’. Surely the likelihood of precipitating this additional harm would demand reliance by such schools upon existing protections rather the pursuit of new ones. Moreover, teachers and schools have an ethical obligation to limit the harm to student health done by existing protections. To educate rather than to indoctrinate in this particular teaching would require any teacher to enable students to critically appraise its content. It is unrealistic to expect that students in the classrooms of a pluralist society like ours would accept any religious or political doctrine uncritically, but teachers would nonetheless need to ensure students were provided with the required means of criticism: access to sources discussing the controversy, education in the nature of doctrinal development, for example.
Michael Leahy | 18 January 2019


Peter, I appreciate the candour and clarity of your input here, but I'd have thought the law requires more than "possible teachings" on which to proceed in an issue of such social and religious import, especially since there is no evidence of Catholic schools that present approved Church teaching on sexuality causing the sort of damage to which you refer.
John | 18 January 2019


Peter Johnstone. In your reply to Michael Furtado you identify that the question under discussion here is about "the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed" being represented to students as fact to be observed …". This is quite an interesting perspective in that it indicates that you consider some of the doctrine, tenets and teachings of the Church are not indeed factual and thus there exists no obligation, moral or otherwise, to observe the Church teachings - in other words, our "human rights" allow us to choose which tenets we accept and which we reject. There are of course some simple facts that do need to be pursued in this debate not the least of which is sexual morality. Sexual orientation is a normal human trait just as are such things as skin colour and facial bony structure. Sexual practice can be moral or immoral regardless of sexual orientation. Immorality associated with heterosexual sexual practice has been accepted from time immemorial in cultures that have never heard of the Catholic Church - instinctive perhaps? or, God forbid, a manifestation of the natural law? Why is there no immorality in sexual practice for LGBTIQ orientations which seems to be your premise.. Michael Furtado's response, contrary to your position, meets the requirements of true rather than manipulated education.
john frawley | 18 January 2019


Peter Johnstone. ICCPR Art 18 provides every individual with a right to freedom of religion. Whether individuals exercise it is up to them. The Covenant does not attempt to prescribe the doctrines of any religion either as individually perceived or collectively perceived via e.g. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. The fact is, despite your view that the teaching of certain doctrines in church schools is disrespectful or unreasonable, Parliament has not at present found it necessary to limit that activity.
Linda Nolan | 18 January 2019


Fr. Brennan. Again you demonstrate a worrying inconsistency. Refer my post of yesterday. In replying to Peter Johnstone, you use ICCPR Art 18 as a starting point to illustrate why church schools should have the freedom to teach doctrines on e.g. matters concerning sexuality, without fear of civil law repercussions. But only last year the Ruddock Panel failed to commend to government the incorporation of ICCPR into its recommended Religious Discrimination Act, in particular the Covenanted undertaking that freedom of religion includes "freedom, either individually or in community with others & in public & private to manifest (one's) religion or belief in worship, observance, practice & teaching." One would expect that the Panel, tasked with examining & reporting on whether Australian laws adequately protect the human right to freedom of religion, would have included a recommendation that a RDA incorporate an individual's right to manifest his/her beliefs as broadly as the Art 18 envisaged when Australia ratified it decades ago. But no, the Report was silent on the matter. As noted yesterday, it is difficult now to take you seriously on any religious freedom matter.
Linda Nolan | 18 January 2019


Frank Brennan's "one proviso" that religious schools should remain "free to teach their doctrine respectfully and reasonably" does little to clear the ground on non-discrimination versus religious liberty. It fails on several counts, all relating to the conditions "respectfully and reasonably" which Frank repeats so that we can't ignore them. So what does Frank want us to do with them? First, the terms are conspicuously missing from the new clause proposed for section 21 of the Sex Discrimination Act. Why? Are we to assume that since religious schools are such fine places they will never do unreasonable or disrespectful things? I can't believe that this is what is intended by their omission. If they are important we need them there. A second possibility is that as subjective terms they are inappropriate in a legal statement. They might open a can of litigious worms, so are best avoided. But if we ignore them we are ignoring something that Frank clearly regards as important, else he would not have made such a strong, repeated point about them. If this reading of Frank is correct, I am totally with him - his whole case does indeed turn on the questions of reasonableness and respectfulness in church teaching. The third, somewhat subversive, possibility is that if these two are included as a test of whether religious activities are non-discriminatory, they might actually do the opposite of what some proponents want. That is because Frank's two examples of freedom to teach - Christ's teaching against wealth and regarding marriage and divorce - are morally quite unlike the question of sexual orientation. The former two are matters regarding which those who may find themselves "confronted" or "upset" do, in principle, have it in their power to change their behaviour. They can very well do otherwise if they wish to obey the Church's teaching. Sexual orientation is never a matter of choice, hence it belongs in a quite different moral category. If a school teaches that homosexuality is "objectively disordered" this is by definition becomes a grievously disrespectful act, justifiably offensive to a homosexual student. He or she has no power to do otherwise. The school has no moral right to condemn them for what is immutable, like red hair and left-handedness, not in their power to change.
Lee Andresen | 18 January 2019


Mate, any religious teaching that falls foul of protections for LGBTI people isn't a religious teaching that should be protected. If schools don't want to discriminate against LGBTI people, or teach the kids in their care to discriminate against LGBTI people, then they won't be affected. This whole "religious freedom" line is nonsense. You're demanding the power and "right" to harm LGBTI people in a way that is unlawful for everyone else. Your arbitrary religious beliefs are not an ethical basis for you to have that harmful right.
Jeremy | 18 January 2019


Stephen McAlpine I am very familiar with the history of and justification for 'state aid'.But it has long been accepted even by Catholic education authorities at both state and national level that accepting such funding does mean accepting some constraints, including those that relate to curriculum. There is an ongoing debate, not generally recognised as far as I can see, over whether we (those associated with, involved in or supportive of Catholic education) pay too high a price for such funding. I might add that there is also an ongoing debate over whether Catholic schools should enrol students from families who have no intention of actively supporting the religious ethos of the school but simply have some objection, well founded or otherwise, to what they perceive to be the ethos of the local high school.
Margaret | 18 January 2019


Thank you Frank for your article. The premise of your argument sounds fine in theory, but I worry about the application of the theory. When I was in school, I had a mate who was the product of a mixed marriage. Notwithstanding that his parents were married in a Catholic church, and his father supported the children attending Mass every Sunday and attending Catholic schools, the nuns would regularly say to him, in front of the entire class – “your father is going to burn in hell and its your responsibility to get him to convert to being a Catholic”. The nuns probably thought they were trying to save the father’s immortal soul. But in reality this was just being cruel and had a deep psychological impact on my friend. It was another form of child abuse. Today, most Catholic schools are run by lay people and the Religious who are still involved have become better educated by the laity in true Christian values. But this sort of conduct cannot be allowed to occur again. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney has been making a ‘big issue’ of the matter of Religious Freedom. But most of what he has presented as evidence for his argument is without foundation. For example, he considered a proposed education funding model by the federal government to be an attack on Catholic schools. School funding is highly complex with funds coming from both state and federal governments. The implementation of Gonski 2.0 was intended to provide greater support for the schools with the greatest need and less support for schools in higher socio-economic areas. I understood that the federal government thought, with our ethos to support the poor, that we would support that principle. The federal government’s approach was not an attack on religion in Australia as illustrated by the response of the New South Wales' Education Minister, Rob Stokes, who stated that he had not ruled out court action if the then Turnbull Government backtracks on its funding deal for the state schools. Rob Stokes said the new plan was mixed for NSW. He said that the NSW Government would have to find $1.7 billion in savings over six years as part of the National Education Reform Agreement with the Commonwealth, which was struck in 2013. Clearly, communication between the federal government and the whole of the education sector was poor. But it was not an attack on Religious Freedom.
Garry Nolan | 19 January 2019


A discussion similar to this present one, titled "Does discrimination have any place in Christian education?" took place last October on the ABC Religion and Ethics website https://www.abc.net.au/religion. For me, the most compelling case against discrimination was made by Mark Jennings, Adjunct Lecturer in Religious Studies at Murdoch University. Here is the gist of his concluding remarks. "Surely, one of the best ways for Christian schools to embody the "open arms and reckless grace of Christ" is by advocating less discrimination. How better to demonstrate to the LGBTIQ students, staff and parents in the noisy public square of Christian education that they are embraced and included? This is the view of 46 Principals and Heads of Independent faith-based schools across a number of denominations, who late last month wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister indicating that discrimination has no place in Christian education. It is indeed time for the "open arms" of Christ to be evident in the Christian schools of this country. It is time for "reckless grace" to be shown to the many LGBTIQ Christians in Australia. Disavowing discrimination based on gender and sexual identity is precisely how Christian schools can make grace and inclusion apparent. While Australians may regard "freedom of" religion as entirely reasonable, many also quite reasonably do not see that it follows that Christian schools should be permitted to discriminate against the LGBTIQ population, many of whom identify as Christians, who are also gathered in that open square." Yes, these remarks were addressed specifically to "Independent faith-based" Christian schools", but in this present Catholic education forum I would very much like to hear how those responsible for Catholic education would reply to the spirit of Jennings' proposition.
Lee Andresen | 20 January 2019


And Brennan votes for legalisation of SSM.
Graham McLennan | 20 January 2019


Lee Andresen, the terminology of Mark Jennings's is one-sided and emotive. The Gospels present a theology that includes both the largesse of God's grace and a recognition of our need for repentance. Moreover, those who seek to uphold the right of religious freedom in schools do so on the basis of their entitlement to teach according to the values that define them, which are not exclusively secular on matters of gender, sexuality and marriage: the case is not based on an alleged right to discriminate against "LGBTI people".
John | 21 January 2019


Exactly John. The right of religious schools to add religious instruction to an otherwise mandatory & secular curriculum set by State/Territory education departments is self-evident & covenanted by the Commonwealth forty years ago. General LGBTI acceptance is a more recent phenomenon. The right of LGBTI persons to legally marry is fair enough but it is not for them or anybody else not involved with R.I. at a religious school to decide what may or may not be taught. The fact that the leadership of most Christian denominations have chosen to hide behind a Commonwealth-provided "exemption" in the Marriage Act - S.47(3) - to keep themselves involved in legal marriages rather than follow Christ's teaching on the subject, should NOT be taken as an indicator that religious schools are as weak as their churches have shown themselves to be.
Linda Nolan | 22 January 2019


Is this all about 'religious freedom' or Catholic freedom'? This article, Frank's December article, and the report of the committee that Frank served on are all ostensibly about the former but actually about the latter. (Yes, OK, Sydney's Anglican hierarchy gets a mention but does anyone take them seriously.). In seeking to tailor secular legislation to suit Catholics, what land mines does that leave among other faith communities? For example, would Frank's proposed additional clause allow children to be taught that blood transfusions are sinful, that female (or for that matter male) genital mutilation is a divinely ordained practice, or that they must not eat with 'unbelievers' because that would make themselves 'unclean', just because those beliefs were part of the 'doctrines, tenets, beliefs' of that particular religion or creed'?
Ginger Meggs | 22 January 2019


Frank says 'Just as the Greens ought not be required to employ a coal merchant, a Christian school ought not be required to employ an anti-Christian activist' implying thereby that the Greens already have that right but that Christian schools do not, which is clearly nor correct. He then goes on to argue that the Church should be able to exclude from employment anybody who does not comply with any or all of the Church's teachings, no matter how relevant to the role to be filled. That would be like allowing the Greens to refuse to employ an IT specialist because he drove a car with an internal combustion engine. There are many precious universal freedoms such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from indefinite detention, freedom from non-appealable executive decisions, and freedom of movement, that deserve the attention of Frank and the Church rather than this inwardly focussed pursuit of 'religious freedom'.
Ginger Meggs | 22 January 2019


GM. The inwardly focused pursuit of "religious freedom" by certain individuals and groups seems to be nothing more than courting favour on both sides of the fence by sitting on the fence and swaying with the tide of popular opinion. To fall off the fence would of necessity mean that the fence-sitter would have no choice but to land on one or other side, something that spells the demise of the sitter's "have it both ways philosophy" and maintain a more universal popularity!
john frawley | 23 January 2019


The philosopher Stanley Cavell, in his classic book "Must we mean what we say?" (2018) says something pertinent to this present discussion: "Both political and religious ministers madly try to solve religious problems with political means" (p. 153). It seems to me that the Catholic Church has a religious problem that it has not yet solved - about the morality of homosexuality. Frank Brennan and well-meaning others are trying in vain to solve this problem as it applies to the conduct of education, by a purely political means - by seeking exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation. It is a futile exercise and condemned to failure by its own confusion of incompatible means. Solve the religious problem first, then let a political solution be found after that.
Lee Andresen | 24 January 2019


Fr Brennan, where does your legislative framework leave faithful Catholics who conscientiously disgree with certain aspects of Catholic teaching? Do you simply brand them as any-Christian activists and sack/expel or not hire them? You seem to be advocating a new form of doctrinal fundamentalism which would shut down healthy theological debate and intelligent rational reflection and doubt. I wonder whether your fellow Jesuits would agree with such a cowtowing to doctrines. What would have happened if we weren’t allowed to question outdated church teachings on slavery? Maybe we’d still be advocating that too.
Aurelius | 29 January 2019


Good point Aurelius. It took the church 300 years to apologise to the descendants of Galileo for espousing the Copernican theory. He was arrested and forbidden to teach. And lest we forget how this fossil we call the church reacts to all things new or controversial: "Starting in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges of denial of several core Catholic doctrines, including eternal damnation, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. Bruno's pantheism was also a matter of grave concern, as was his teaching of the transmigration of the soul. The Inquisition found him guilty, and he was burned at the stake in Rome's Campo de' Fiori in 1600. After his death, he gained considerable fame, being particularly celebrated by 19th- and early 20th-century commentators who regarded him as a martyr for science, although historians have debated the extent to which his heresy trial was a response to his astronomical views or to other aspects of his philosophy and theology. Bruno's case is still considered a landmark in the history of free thought and the emerging sciences." Wikipedia.
Francis Armstrong | 30 January 2019


And no, HH, catholic teaching doesn't mention divorcees and single hetereoexuals in de facto relationships as being "intrinsically disordered". The teaching is specifically about homos.
AURELIUS | 30 January 2019


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