Why the Bishop is wrong on faith and rights
26th September 2009

National Times

September 30, 2009 - 8:12AM

Bishop John McIntyre criticises the decision by Attorney-General Rob Hulls to continue to allow faith-based schools to discriminate in terms of who they employ. According to critics such as McIntyre, the current exemptions and exceptions to the Equal Opportunity Act are unfair and unjust.
Not so. As noted by the Attorney-General in a recent media release: "In relation to employment, the religious nature of the organisation or school will need be taken into account in determining whether a particular position needs to be filled by someone who adheres to that religion's beliefs."
Deciding between competing rights and balancing rights with responsibilities is difficult and challenging, no more so than in relation to rights such as freedom of religion, expression and belief. As common sense suggests, not all rights are absolute and there are occasions when particular rights have to be qualified or curtailed.
Freedom of expression does not give one the licence to shout "fire" in a crowded cinema. In terms of sex discrimination, it is permissible, in the context of women's health centres for example to deny men membership. Some customs, such as polygamy, that might be accepted elsewhere in the world are not permitted in Australia and the right to do as one pleases has to be balanced against the common good and what both state and church law says is permissible.
As noted by in The Exceptions Review Consultation Paper February 2008, when discussing the relationship between the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 and The Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, ". . . there may be some cases where competing rights need to be appropriately balanced. The intention of the exceptions is to strike a balance between the rights and freedoms of individuals."
The right to discriminate is also supported by the Australian Human Rights Commission's 2008 Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century: Discussion Paper that suggests two grounds for exemption, one being to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of a particular religion.
Faith-based schools are not secular schools and, while they are an important part of the broader Victorian educational community, such schools have a unique mission to fulfil in terms of their religious teachings and principles.
If a teacher's lifestyle or beliefs are in opposition or contradict the religious beliefs and tenets of a particular faith-based school, then it is only reasonable that the school has the right to deny employment.
The reason parents send their children to faith-based schools is because such schools provide an education and environment informed and guided by their religion. The right of parents to educate their children or to have them educated according to their religious and moral beliefs and traditions is safe guarded under several international agreements including: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the Convention against Discrimination in Education 1960, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1996 and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1996.
To fulfil their obligations and mission, religious schools need the freedom to employ staff who embrace that particular religion and who follow its teachings, both in word and deed. As educational institutions, it is also important that individual school authorities are free to employ staff that are committed to and support the culture of a school and its educational philosophy.
The Equal Opportunity Act 1995 agrees with and supports such freedom by exempting church schools from a number of requirements under the Act. Critics such as the Victorian Independent Education Union argue against the right of faith-based schools to discriminate.
In its submission to the review of the EOA review the union argues, "The Victorian Government, through its legislative power should determine that religious schools respect the rights, values and ways of being of job applicants and employees who do not share the same beliefs".
Such an argument is both dangerous and flawed. Dangerous in that it gives pre-eminence to the individual's right to believe and do as he or she wishes in opposition to the faith-based morality and teachings of the school.
Such an argument is also flawed as teaching and education, in general, can never be value-free. It is important that those seeking to work in faith-based schools sympathise and agree with the religious beliefs and teachings of such schools. To do otherwise is hypocritical and sends a contradictory message to students and other staff.

Dr Kevin Donnelly taught for 18 years in secondary schools and is director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies.


Responses to this Post

Pat Whalen says:

I have to agree. Faith based schools should have the right to hire people that support the ethos of the school. I am an over-weight 64 year old male. Could I claim that I am being discriminated against if the Playboy Club or Hooters refuses to employ me? If I were an avowed anti-Semite, could I claim discrimination if a Jewish school does not want to hire me? If I were an alcoholic, pork-loving person, could I claim discrimination if a Muslim school does not hire me? Likewise, if I supported abortion and gay lifestyle, could I claim discrimination if a Catholic school does not hire me? My biggest fear is that if the so called "Australian Bill of Rights" wins a guernsey it will be open slather for ridiculous law suits, like myself suing the Playboy Club for employment!

Pat Whalen
Yokine, WA



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26th September 2009

National TimesKEVIN DONNELLYSeptember 30, 2009 - 8:12AM Bishop John McIntyre criticises the decision by Attorney-General Rob Hulls to continue to allow faith-based schools to discriminate in terms o...
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