Media and Communications Office
Melbourne Archbishop Peter A Comensoli was among a number of speakers as the Senate yesterday conducted hearings ahead of the federal government’s plans to strip schools of the right to expel LGBTI students.
In a public hearing here in Melbourne, the Senate heard from members of many religious organisations across Australia in an inquiry into legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff.
The result of the hearing may be finalised in the next week, with Attorney-General Christian Porter to introduce new legislation which the government wants to pass in the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli spoke on behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
Below is his opening statement:
My name is Peter Comensoli. I’m the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and I represent the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference as the bishop responsible for public engagement.
Senators, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.
More than 60 per cent of Australians hold religious beliefs. More than 50 per cent call themselves Christian. One in five Australian students attend a Catholic school.
The affirmation of religious freedom as a fundamental right in our society is not a fringe matter.
The mission of Catholic schools is not just to educate students in all the elements of the Australian Curriculum, as important as that is, but primarily to help educate our students in how to live Christian lives.
Parents and carers choose our schools for their children because they value what we have to offer, which is an education consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church.
Catholic schools have a long tradition of enrolling staff and students from a broad spectrum of personal circumstances, identities and lifestyles, whether they be Catholic or not. But we expect they will support the religious identity and mission of the school.
Our schools treat all their students and staff with the greatest respect as we regard every human being as made in the image and likeness of God. Every person has an inherent human dignity and no person can be reduced to some aspect of their makeup, by race, gender or in any other way.
The freedom of Catholic schools to employ staff who support our mission both inside and outside employment is essential to ensure the school is an educational community which demonstrates Christianity to its students, both in word and practice.
Catholic schools are upfront in advising anyone applying for a position of the identity and mission of the school and the expectation that all staff will be supportive of its mission and ethos.
Workplace relations issues arise from time to time in our schools as they do in any workplace. Those issues may be related to important religious beliefs, which is why the exemptions are important.
School principals work to resolve such issues pastorally and within existing frameworks. That work is generally successful, but sometimes there is a breakdown in the relationship and schools need to rely on the protections in law.
Anti-discrimination laws rightly protect people from being treated unjustly simply on the basis of personal characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation.
When anti-discrimination laws were introduced in Australia, ‘exemptions’ were provided in the case of religious institutions to ensure that the laws did not have the effect of curtailing religious freedom.
For example, while it would be unjust in most situations to exclude a person on the basis of their religious or ethical beliefs, it would be equally unjust to insist that a religious organisation employ a person who was opposed to its religious and ethical beliefs.
Catholic schools do not discriminate unjustly against students or staff. Our schools would not expel a student just because of their sexual orientation. But we want to maintain laws that would protect our capacity to teach a Christian understanding of sexual ethics and marriage according to our faith tradition.
We propose that the law recognise religious freedom in a positive way to allow religious groups to continue to run their schools according to their religious faith, but retain the exemptions because they have the benefit of established acceptance and meaning in law.
The affirmation of Religious Freedom as a fundamental right of citizens is unfinished business in Australian’s legal framework. We would hope that the Federal Parliament will now take positive steps to rectify this.
I would be happy to answer any questions.