The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge [above], said all people should be considered equally for employment or enrolment."Once employed or enrolled, people within a Catholic school community are expected to adhere to the school's mission and values."
The religious freedom review recommends that a new bill go to Federal Parliament to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to codify how religious schools can discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.Although the federal Sex Discrimination Act already permits religious schools to discriminate in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy, the states and territories have differing approaches. Under the proposed amendment the religious school must have a publicly available policy, and in the case of students, their "best interests" must be its primary concern.
Archbishop Coleridge, who made a submission to the review on behalf of the Catholic Church, said "we have not sought concessions to discriminate against students or teachers based on their sexuality, gender identity or relationship status"."Catholic schools welcome staff and students from all backgrounds who are willing to accept the declared mission and values of the school community," he said.
Last year Trinity Catholic College in Lismore welcomed two transgender students and sent a letter to parents saying it was "essential as a Catholic community we offer our full support to these students".Professor Patrick Parkinson, the dean of law at the University of Queensland, wrote a submission to the religious freedom review on behalf of Freedom for Faith think tank, which was endorsed by prominent church groups including Hillsong, the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.
"I don't know of anybody in the church community who wants to discriminate against gay or lesbian students," he said. "Discrimination of that kind in Christian schools is as rare as a Tasmanian tiger."Professor Parkinson said the biggest issue for faith-based organisations was their desire to be able to choose staff who adhered to their religious beliefs and practices, such as a Christian school being able to prefer a Christian teacher.
"This varies a lot from state to state and we need to clarify the position in national law," he said.Religious schools enjoy varying exceptions to discrimination law in all states and territories.
However, Professor Parkinson said they were under threat from a "growing body of opinion" that exceptions should not be allowed."There needs to be a fundamental freedom for faith-based organisations to be able to employ those who adhere to the values of the organisation. This is basic common sense."
The Australian Christian Lobby's managing director Martyn Iles said: "Just as political parties and other groups can discriminate in hiring and admitting members, so too should religious institutions which have a clear statement of belief."Father Tony Kerin, the episcopal vicar for life, marriage and family from the Archdiocese of Melbourne, said it was interesting that the religious freedom review report had taken so long to leak.
He said some in the community did not welcome the announcement of the review, seeing it as a concession to conservative segments of the government benches.