Faith-based schools demand respect for their religious sensitivities, but turn those sensitivities on or off depending on their best interests.
In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. This is one of the principles set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Only five members of the Coalition appear to have read it.
It is a principle which makes it hard to respect a Prime Minister or political party that would use vulnerable children as pawns in a game of wedge politics in the run-up to a federal election.
If the PM believed that it was a matter of national priority to create and amend legislation to prevent faith-based schools from using religious grounds to exclude and expel students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, then he had several years to accomplish this mission.
If he was keeping it up his sleeve to use as a divisive issue on which to wedge his political opponents in the heat of an election then he deserves the pain of having wedged himself.
The PM seems not to have understood that schooling itself embodies many of the conflicting and contradictory interests and aspirations of the wider society; and that in no school system are these more deeply entrenched than in Australia’s hybrid system of public and publicly funded private schools.
It was bad luck for the PM that just as he was about to put his legislation forward there came a headline-grabbing revelation that a Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane had been asking families to sign an enrolment form contract demanding the denouncement of homosexuality and that students subscribe to traditional gender roles. Such was the backlash within the school itself and beyond that the principal resigned.
And yet, against my better judgment, I almost felt some sympathy for this principal. For at least he made the school’s religious tenets transparent, instead of using the familiar code words such as “ethos” or “tradition”; or using the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ convention used by other faith-based schools for avoiding the kind of trouble he landed in.
In a country that has bent over backwards to encourage the growth of private religious schools, it was remarkable to me that so many citizens seemed surprised that such schools expect to have freedom to discriminate in student admission and teacher employment in favour of those who are members of their faith community; and that they have long enjoyed this power to exclude certain students and teachers.
At the same time, it is in the interests of prospective students, parents and teachers, as well as the public, to know precisely how that freedom to discriminate on religious grounds will be exercised in practice. But schools quite rightly fear that this puts them at risk of a public backlash, the further their beliefs are from public norms.
The argument for allowing faith-based schools freedom from aspects of anti-discrimination legislation is that there is a need to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of people of the religious group. But it is clear that many of these schools wish to turn their sensitivities on or off depending on their best interests in particular circumstances. This explains the strange argument often advanced by private providers of schooling that they need the power to discriminate on religious grounds but that they rarely, if ever, use it.
Most faith-based schools have managed to develop an intricate web of self-serving arrangements for exercising discrimination but not to the point where they encounter the downside of discrimination – of narrowing unduly the field of talent from which the school can draw, whether applied to student admissions or teacher employment.
If there is a scarcity of physics teachers, say, a school might decide not to inquire into applicants’ religious standing rather than go without. Or, similarly, it might drop its reluctance to enrol an openly gay student if the student comes from a well-known, influential, wealthy family or has a talent that adds lustre to the school.
The PM and others try to draw a line between student admission and teacher employment when it comes to freedom to discriminate. This makes me wonder how a school, or a parent, can imagine that gay students will feel they are included as equals when it is clear to them that, were they to go on from the school to become a qualified teacher, they would then be refused employment on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
His poor handling of religious discrimination legislation should be a reminder to public schools of their obligations to children and young people.
The fact of a school being public does not, of itself, guarantee that no student experiences discrimination. This is a reminder that all teachers, parents and students directly involved in a public school need to understand that all students share an equal entitlement to be there; and that this must be recognised in all aspects of the operation of the school; and that, where appropriate, this may entail particular forms of support arising from their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Back to the imbroglio around faith-based, private schools.
There have been proposals that the removal of public funding might be a lever more readily available to governments than tortuous legislation to curb the power of faith-based schools to discriminate against children on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But this would imply that our society accepts that such a school can treat vulnerable children however it likes provided that it foots the bill itself. This is not putting children first.
A more practical way forward may be for the Morrison government to refer the legislation it has now withdrawn from parliament to a council of faith-based school authorities and to ask them not to report back until they have reached agreement on a proposal to government indicating legislative action they would like the government to consider.
That should solve the PM’s problem in the forthcoming election and for time to come.