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New religious discrimination laws raise concerns in Australia

Based on recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission, the new law could remove section 38 from the Sex Discrimination Act - which protects religious beliefs of school employees.

The proposal of a new Religious Discrimination Act –  that would enable religious institutions to choose teachers based on their faith – has caused tension and a backlash from both religious organisations and churches, as well as the Federal Opposition.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, and National Catholic Education Commission executive director Jacinta Collins wrote a letter, signed by Melbourne Archbishop Peter A Comensoli. They argue that if section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act is removed, it should be replaced by legislation offering more accurate protections for religious educational establishments. They recommend amendments that would empower schools to “appropriately manage” student behaviour when necessary “to preserve the institutions’ religious ethos”.

The letter reads: “If the (Government’s) amendments to the SDA and the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill were enacted as currently drafted, there would be a very real and substantial reduction in existing legal and operational freedoms for religious education institutions. In essence, we would go a long way backwards. The current proposals would not provide sufficient legal and operational freedoms for religious educational institutions to maintain their religious ethos and fidelity to religious beliefs and practice.”

Archbishop Fisher – one of Australia’s most senior Catholic leaders – expressed his concern that the new law may force the Church to implement radical measures as a response to violation of religious freedom. There’s a risk of withdrawing religious educational services as had happened during the 1962 Goulburn school strike. He said closing Catholic schools may happen “if we were told we were not allowed to take religion into account in who we employ, or in the ethos of our schools, which is quite a push at the moment. So there’s an example of, I think, a crunch point that would force us to consider withdrawal from a ministry.”

The Prime Minister promised that he would not attempt to introduce a new Religious Discrimination Act unless it has bipartisan backing. The two major parties have not reached an agreement yet. 


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