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Religious freedom in schools

  • 15 January 2019


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.

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.