The Director of Catholic Education for the Canberra Goulburn archdiocese, Ross Fox, says he is “surprised” at the speed with which the Chief Minister has moved to amend ACT legislation regarding religious freedom for schools.
“I haven’t been aware that there is an urgency to close any loopholes, so I guess it comes as a surprise that the Chief Minister would initiate legislation without any consultation that I’m aware of with Canberra’s religious community and schools”, Mr Fox said.
The Chief Minister says the ACT government will strip religious schools of the legal right to reject gay teachers and prevent discrimination against students and teachers on the basis of sexuality, gender identity, race, pregnancy or intersex characteristics.
Mr Barr has described current ACT legislation regarding religious freedoms as a “legal loophole” existing between the Discrimination Act of 1991 and the Human Rights Act 2004. About 60 per cent of ACT’s students are in the public education system, with the remaining 40 per cent divided between various independent and Catholic systemic schools.
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But Ross Fox says that the ACT is already a jurisdiction with a firm commitment to human rights and inclusion and that among those rights are freedom of religion and the freedom for parents to choose the appropriate education for their child.
“We are prepared to engage in dialogue about how to balance these rights. There’s no need for a rush to change arrangements that have been working well to create welcoming and inclusive schools. We shouldn’t be in a hurry to change those laws without deep reflection”, Mr Fox says.
“Catholic schools are very representative of the Canberra community. We welcome children and parents of all faiths and no faith, but we are Catholic schools. That’s important as to why parents choose us – it’s a sacred trust to educate their children.”
When asked where the line in the sand lies with regard to teachers and students whose beliefs and life choices might differ from Catholic doctrine, Mr Fox said, “We expect that people who teach or work in Catholic schools support or refrain from undermining Catholic values and teachings.
“We employ people from many different backgrounds, but if you were a Muslim, for example, you could be an excellent Maths teacher and a valued part of our school community, but we would reasonably expect that proselytising about another faith would not be appropriate.”
Mr Fox refused to be drawn on any scenario where a teacher might be dismissed from Catholic school employment. “I don’t think there’s any black and white when it comes to the needs of children and the rich human communities that schools are. The relationship between parents, students, staff and church will be realised differently in every situation.”
And Mr Fox defended the right of non-government schools to receive public funding while exercising different standards over faith-based issues. “Parents at non-government schools are taxpayers too, and non-government schools are not funded at the same rate as government schools,” he said. “Parents make a significant investment when choosing a school. We think that’s aligned with the reality that there’s a different environment in independent schools. The same expectations should not apply and there are strong justifications for that.”
Should the Chief Minister move quickly to change the ACT’s religious freedom laws? Should there be more consultation?