Secular critics argue that religious organisations such as faith-based
schools, especially Catholic schools, should not have the right to discriminate
in relation to who they enrol and who they employ. Wrong. One of the fundamental rights in any democratic and open society is
freedom of religion.
Faith-based schools, by their very nature, are there to uphold and teach the
spiritual values and morality embodied in their religion. If freedom of religion
is to have any meaning, then it follows that schools should have the power to
discriminate in relation to who they enrol and who they employ.
The religious nature of such schools explains why they are so attractive and
popular with increasing numbers of parents.
When it comes to school choice, a 2004 survey by the Australian Council for
Educational Research concludes that a very important factor is ''the extent to
which the school embraced traditional values to do with discipline, religious or
moral values, the traditions of the school itself, and requirement that a
uniform be worn''.
A second survey, commissioned by Independent Schools Queensland, also reveals
that when parents were asked the reason for choosing a particular school,
religious affiliation was the most important.
Faith-based schools are not secular schools. For the 1700 or so Catholic
schools in Australia that enrol more than 20 per cent of primary and secondary
students, this means that the school, its curriculum, its staff and the students
enrolled should uphold and commit themselves to the church's teachings.
That such is the case shouldn't surprise. Under the new Human Rights and
Anti-Discrimination Bill, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has assured
faith-based organisations they will maintain their ''freedom'' to discriminate
against homosexuals and others who do not adhere to their faith. As publicly
stated by the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria: ''Our schools promote a
particular view of the person, the community, the nation and the world centred
on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, and they form an integral part of
the church community in which all generations live, worship and grow
Those seeking to work or those seeking to enrol children in such schools can
be in no doubt as to the religious nature of such schools and that there is a
requirement, as members of the school community, to live according to the tenets
on which the school is based.
And it is wrong to argue that the freedom to discriminate should apply to
only those teaching religious instruction in faith-based schools. Education, as
argued by Brian Crittenden, the one-time head of the School of Education at La
Trobe University, is inherently concerned with moral development.
All subjects, as well as what is known as the hidden curriculum involving a
school's institutional practices and culture, contribute to that moral
development. It is also true that teachers, regardless of their subject
expertise, are role models and can have a significant and lasting impact on
It should also be noted, in relation to discrimination, that not all rights
are absolute and there are occasions when particular rights have to be qualified
or curtailed. For many years, feminists have argued that women's health centres
should be able to discriminate against men by denying membership.
More recently, the argument has been put that swimming pools should have the
freedom to restrict entry on particular days or at a particular time to
accommodate the religious beliefs of Muslim women.
In relation to education, the reality is that several state and international
covenants and agreements argue that parents must have the right to choose
schools that uphold their religious beliefs.
An international agreement, the Convention against Discrimination in
Education, argues parents must be free to choose non-government schools as an
alternative to state schools, and that parents' religious beliefs must be
''It is essential to respect the liberty of parents … to ensure that the
religious and moral education of their children is in conformity with their own
convictions,'' it says.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is the director of the Melbourne-based Education
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