BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge has urged lawmakers to support a broad, holistic re-examination of religious freedom.
Archbishop Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, raised the hot-button issue as he led a five-member Church delegation presenting evidence to a parliamentary committee examining Labor Senator Penny Wong’s private member’s bill dealing with religious schools and their capacity to “discriminate” against students on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
“Our preference would be very strongly to set this particular issue about the treatment of students in schools within the much larger context … the broadest of which is the renegotiation of the relationship between religion and the state,” he told the committee in Brisbane on February 6.
“That’s a massive phenomenon that’s unfolding in this culture at this time and we don’t want to turn our back on it or put our head in the sand – we’re part of it.
“Our preference would be very strongly to set this particular issue about the treatment of students in schools within the much larger context which helps us to understand the implications of any decisions which we or the parliament may make.”
Archbishop Coleridge said Catholic schools did not use existing exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act to expel or otherwise discriminate against students simply on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
He conceded that existing exemptions were important because “schools want to maintain the capacity to operate and teach based on a Christian understanding of life and of the human person as part of a broad education in the Catholic faith, which we regard as an initiation into what it means to be fully human”.
“Suggestions that they do – at times driven more by ideology than the facts – have misrepresented and undermined the work of Catholic schools and caused needless anxiety in the community,” he told senators.
Archbishop Coleridge said exemptions ensured that religious freedom was not compromised.
“Yet this system of exemptions gives the wrong impression that religious freedom is a negative, lesser right, rather than a positive, fundamental right …,” he said.
“It is piecemeal … but if there is not something better we would prefer the existing exemptions to remain in force.
“In the absence of a positive recognition of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, we would prefer to keep the existing clear protections.
“If the protections were to be repealed, we would support amendments as detailed in our submission to help protect the ability of Catholic schools to continue to operate according to their mission.
“Catholic schools want the freedom to continue teaching the Catholic faith to their students and the sense of the human person that goes with it.
“They also want to be free to employ staff who are able to do this.
“Importantly, they also want the freedom to be able to continue offering the service that Catholic schools provide to the broader community, generating social capital which may be hard to measure exactly but which is impossible to deny.”
Deputy committee chair Senator Louise Pratt questioned Catholic secondary principals representative Ann Rebgetz how schools practically dealt with concerns raised by parents of same-sex students about a school’s religious ethos.
“It’s not an issue, in the sense that all students are treated equally,” Mrs Rebgetz, principal at Brisbane’s St James College, told the committee.
“We don’t identify that (a student’s sexual orientation) as an issue either as parents or a student coming into the school. Our deepest concern is to be true to our mission which is making sure of the wellbeing and pastoral care – that it comes first.
“In Brisbane Catholic Education we have middle leaders who are paid just to look after the wellbeing of students. In other government schools this is not always the case.
“That just exemplifies what we are offering in terms of our schools.”