Friday, January 18, 2013

Kevin Donnelly: Freedom of religion and faith-based schools

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 together.''

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 their students.

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 respected.

''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 Standards Institute.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Charter schools boils down to power & control over young & impressionable minds to their own particular superstition.
Moral development??? Will they be told how god ordered the babies to be bashed on the rocks or when he ordered his army (Joshua & Co) to completely annihilate the population, first killing soldiers, then killing the non combatants in cold blood (women, children, babies). In some cities he allowed the soldiers to force women they found to be attractive to have sex with them. Will they be taught that slavery is OK?
I could go on for a long time with many other examples.