01 November 2018

Religious freedoms of schools

​You may be aware of the recent media coverage about the rights of faith-based schools and federal anti-discrimination legislation. You may also be aware that I was one of 34 heads from Sydney Anglican diocese schools to sign an Open Letter issued yesterday to all MPs expressing our wish to continue to be able to select staff who support the Christian ethos, values and mission of our schools.

Some of the facts in relation to this matter have been misrepresented by the media and, as such, I would like to clarify them with you directly.

Firstly and most importantly, I would like to reiterate my assurance to you as stated in my email of 15 October 2018. St Catherine's would never expel, refuse to enrol or discriminate against any student on the basis of their sexual orientation. We welcome all students, and truly value the unique contribution each of them makes to the life of the school. We have an inclusive community, and are proud of that.  Likewise, we are grateful for our diverse team of staff, and no staff member's employment is or will be under threat because of their sexuality or relationship status.

As an Anglican school, however, we do ask that all staff uphold the Christian character and purposes of the school, which are reflected in our values of integrity, resilience, respect, relationships and service. It is this point that was the subject of the Open Letter I signed: to maintain the right of Anglican Schools to select staff who support the ethos, values and mission of those schools. This is simply asking for the continued freedom to exist as Christian schools so we can continue to deliver an education that meets the expectations of parents who choose our schools. I believe this is a reasonable expectation, and no different from any organisation wanting to appoint employees who will support their ethos, values and mission.

You may be wondering then, why is this necessary? Surely schools already have this right?

They don't. The current 'exemption' in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 is really the only significant legal protection available to schools to maintain their ethos with regard to core issues of faith. There are no current laws that enshrine a positive right to freedom of religion in NSW or at the Commonwealth level. As stated in the Open Letter, until such time as religious freedom is embedded in legislation, our shared view is that current exemptions should remain. Essentially, we are asking that the government enshrines a positive right to religious freedom in legislation as soon as possible so that the current exemptions can be removed altogether.

In case you have not read the Open Letter, I have attached it​ for your convenience.

I do hope this clarifies our school's position. Please feel free to contact me if there is anything you would like to discuss as I would be very happy to talk it through with you.

Yours sincerely
Dr Julie Townsend