Explaining Australia’s Religious Discrimination Bill is complicated, but it begins and ends with toilet blocks.
In 1962 the state government ordered St Brigid’s Primary School in the rural city of Goulburn, New South Wales, to build three toilets for the overcrowded school. This sparked a revolt by students, staff and parents which eventually led to generous government funding for private schools.
In 2022, state governments are pressuring schools to build toilet blocks for transgender students. This could lead to withdrawal of all funding or even closing schools which stick to their principles.
In the 60 years between these bookends, a lot has happened. Last week in Canberra, the Federal lower house debated a Religious Discrimination Bill. It was so contentious that some government MPs crossed the floor to vote against it.
Now the bill is in limbo. It did pass in the lower house around 5am last Thursday — but amended to remove Section 38 (3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, which gave religious schools the power to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or pregnancy. In its present form, it would never have made it through the upper house, where the Government does not have a majority. So it has been shelved until after an election later this year, probably in May.
The principal issue is whether religious schools should be allowed to “discriminate” against LGBTQI+ staff and students. A number of private schools want to retain the right to discipline or sack teachers who do not support their distinctive ethos, be it Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, with their words or their lifestyle. They want to be able to ask students to leave if their actions are disruptive. And, above all, they do not want governments monkeying with the curriculum to force-feed their children with unwelcome ideas.
Granting exemptions from laws which ban discrimination against LGBTQI+ people is abhorrent, say critics of the bill. It would institutionalise homophobia and transphobia. And this disgrace would happen in the name of antiquated religious values to which a majority of voters are no longer loyal!
I’m not in favour of “religious exemptions”, in principle. At best they defer the moment when schools are going to be denied their fundamental human right to raise their children with their own values. Ten years from now — somebody please take note! — such exemptions will be regarded as unworthy of a tolerant modern democracy and will be scrapped.
But whether religious schools lose the right to create their own ethos in 2022 or in 2032, the day of reckoning is upon us. What should these schools do?
Here are some creative ideas.
Keep up the good fight
The fact that the Bill is currently on life support is an opportunity to keep emphasising the fundamental principles of faith-inspired schools over the next few months.
Dr David Hastie, associate dean of education at Alphacrucis College in Sydney (and formerly educational strategist for the Anglican Schools Corporation), summed them up as follows a couple of years ago:
As part of Australia’s richly diverse suite of educational options, Christian-affiliated schools offer an alternative vision and mission for education, built along a rich ancient, unifying narrative about the world and self. This has been hugely attractive to many Australian families, religious and non, with now 1.25 million enrolments in Christian-affiliated schools, the fifth highest percentage in the world. The right to exclusively hire staff who embrace and embody a unified vision lies at the core of cultural coherence for any successful organisation. Given the huge size of the sector, protecting this as an industrial right in Christian schools in particular, now lies at the core of Australian religious freedoms in general.
Repeat the 1962 Goulburn School Strike
When the state government refused to fund the toilets for St Brigid’s Primary School, the Archbishop closed all six Catholic schools in Goulburn. Two thousand children showed up for enrolment at the state schools. Only 640 of them fit. It showed how important the private system was in Australian education.
Politicians learned quickly. The strike soon led to the current Federal funding arrangements, and to the establishment and growth of Australian non-government schools, of which over 90 percent are Christian-affiliated.
It would take courage and unity, but if faith-affiliated schools closed rather than conform to the diktats of the LGBTQI+ lobby, the state schools would collapse under the influx of students.
Below is a snapshot of the current breakup of enrolments from The Australian Bureau of Statistics for both independent and public schools.
As the former head of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Moira Najdecki, observed: “If nothing else, the Goulburn strike showed that if we didn’t have non-government schools, paid for largely by families, the cost to the Australian taxpayer would be phenomenal.”
Cut a deal
Politicians may not appreciate how much parents cherish their right to send their children to schools with a distinctive ethos. But if they see that they feel passionately about it, perhaps they would agree to the following compromise.
Instead of forcing all schools to open their doors to students and staff who would disrupt that ethos, just remove their government funding. If schools “discriminated”, they would receive no government assistance. In other words, faith-based schools would revert to pre-Goulburn School Strike days. But they would be able to select their own staff, set standards for their students, and teach their own curriculum.
Financially it would be tough but committed parents could make it work.
Covid showed American parents that home-schooling is possible. The Institute for Family Studies found that: “Across the US, as the Census Bureau recently reported, the proportion of households with school-aged children practicing homeschooling doubled between the Spring and Fall of 2020, growing from 5.5% to 11.1 percent. The states of Massachusetts and New York both saw seven-fold increases in homeschooling, while Florida showed a near tripling, and Texas, a near doubling.”
Home-schooling in Australia was rising even before the Covid pandemic. In the proportion of home-schoolers has at least doubled over the past seven years. In NSW six in every 1000 students are being home-schooled; in Victoria, seven in every 1000; and in Tasmania, 14 in every 1000 — the highest in the country.
Set up LGBTQI+-affiliated schools.
The LGBTQI+ movement could be described as a religion. As the High Court ruled in 1983 with respect to Scientology, a religion need not be theistic. The LGBTQI+ movement has its own festivals, its own holidays, its own martyrs, its own creed. Its mythology gives meaning and purpose to lives. It actively proselytises. Its principal tenets are faith-based, not science-based.
Why not create schools for LGBTQI+ children and the children of people who identify as LGBTQI+? The religious exemption could be extended to them. They could hire staff supportive of their distinctive ethos. They could sack teachers whose heterosexual lifestyle aggressively undermined their students’ confidence in LGBTQI+ beliefs. They could expel disruptive Christian students. No one would protest if they held drag queen story times for kindergarten kids.
Rather than invading faith-based schools, where they risk being socially marginalised, LGBTQI+ parents and teachers could create educational environments free from stigma and minority stress. It would also be an interesting experiment in how popular LGBTQI+ ideas are amongst parents. My feeling is that such schools would struggle to attract students, but I might be wrong.
Crazy ideas? Perhaps. But people of faith have to prepare for the next step if they truly want to pass on to their children the fundamental truths about God, the moral life, and sexuality.