For the vast majority of religious schools, it was a shock to learn that they might be allowed to remove a student simply because of their sexual orientation—they had never considered that course of action. However, while that particular issue may have been a storm in a teacup, behind the furore of the last week, there are much bigger questions that need to be resolved. Like what it means for a religious community to be able to live in accordance with its deepest convictions and beliefs. That is the question the Ruddock Review was asked to address.
Changes to discrimination laws could compel faith-based schools to either change their convictions, or to close.
In a culture increasingly unfamiliar with religious conviction, it can be hard to understand what it’s like to have religious faith. Contrary to the stereotypes, faith usually means serious thought, regular self-examination, times of doubt and times of intellectual wrestle. It also means believing there is something, beyond ourselves, to which we have to refer when we are trying to understand what is true, right and just.
In practice, this gets messy. Christians don’t all agree on whether or not sex is exclusively reserved for married men and women, and neither do all Muslims or Jews or secularists for that matter. They also don’t all agree on whether or not it is acceptable to eat shellfish or what happens to us when we die. But religious people all agree that their life should align with the teachings of the faith they have had passed on to them.
For a religious community to function, it needs to be able to resolve its moral and ethical decisions within itself, with reference to its sacred teachings and texts. It is not up to the government to make those decisions on its behalf. Ultimately, that is why issues of religious freedom are so substantial for a faith-based school.
Faith-based schools are places of education and learning, but they are also communities that educate in a context in which the spiritual life of the child is nurtured and the convictions and beliefs of that faith community are upheld. This particularly means that the staff of the school— the people who most substantially represent and carry forward that school’s culture and ethos —need to wholly support those convictions. It also means a school must have the freedom to shape its community life according to those beliefs. That is why the school exists and parents have the option of choosing that particular perspective.
This is like the freedom that is afforded to political parties. Political parties become a nonsense if they are forced to employ people who fundamentally disagree with their philosophy and who expound contrary views even if only in their private life.
The same-sex marriage debate was about whether we should let people live in a way that is important to them and consistent with their convictions, when they have previously not been permitted to do so. The argument to outlaw a school’s ability to select staff who share their beliefs is the complete opposite. It is restricting a people of religious faith from acting in a way that is consistent with their conscience.
In practice, religious schools reach different conclusions about what the essential doctrines and principles of their school will be. Certainly in the wider church, this is a time of serious disagreement and debate with many in the pews holding a range of issues. But the work of determining doctrine has to happen within religious communities themselves. To suggest that schools should be compelled to employ staff who do not share the school’s convictions, is to push those schools into an impossible corner. It means compelling them to either change their convictions, or to close. It is hard to envisage another option.
Both sides of Parliament regularly remind the public of their commitment to choice in education. Families and communities should have choice in how they raise their children. Faith-based schools are just one, relatively small, part of the education landscape. All staff, parents and students know about a religious school’s values and beliefs before they sign up to be a part of that school. No one is compelled to work or study at a school whose values and beliefs they do not agree with. But what these schools do offer, is an option—one among many—for families or employees to select.
If we are serious about diversity, we have to allow different beliefs to have a place in our society. This means accepting and respecting that different views are deeply held by different people and allowing those beliefs to be honestly followed.
What we are set to debate this week is not simply the hiring policies of religious schools, but whether or not we want to see pluralism replaced with an iron-fisted style of secularism in which all views have to fall into line with what a government decides. If we choose that path, we compromise much more than the hiring practices of a few schools and it is not just religious communities that will suffer. The whole fabric of our community life will be weakened.