Christian schools fear closure if WA discrimination laws strengthened

The peak body representing Christian schools has “grave concerns” schools will close if new laws dramatically reducing their ability to preference staff and students of faith go ahead.

Last week, Attorney-General John Quigley announced broad support for 163 recommendations to improve the state’s anti-discrimination laws following a Law Reform Commission of WA review of the outdated Equal Opportunity Act.

Christian schools have voiced concerns over proposed changes to WA’s Equal Opportunity Act.Credit:AFR

One of the key reforms is an “inherent requirement test” that will force religious schools to prove religious belief or activity is an essential requirement of the job.

Australian Association of Christian Schools executive officer Vanessa Cheng said that change would make it difficult for religious schools to employ staff and preference families in enrolment who shared the beliefs of the school.

“The Christian school model requires that all staff, from the principal to the music teacher, share and practice the faith of the school community,” she said.

“We believe this provides the best, holistic learning environment for our students.

“Parents who choose to enrol their children in our schools want an education based on Christian values, which the state school system can no longer provide, and these changes are trying to squeeze faith out of our schools too.

“Surely it is not for the government to determine how a Christian school should be a Christian school?”

Under existing legislation it is lawful for private religious schools in WA, including those receiving taxpayer funding, to sack lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer staff, expel LGBTIQ students, and refuse to enrol children of same-sex parents.

The current law also means religious schools can discriminate against staff who are unmarried parents or living together out of wedlock.

Quigley said the new Act would bring WA into line with other jurisdictions, including Victoria, which introduced changes to its Equal Opportunity Act in June in a bid to ensure a fairer balance between the right to religious freedom and the right to be free from discrimination.

WA Attorney-General John Quigley.Credit:Philip Gostelow

One of the key reforms in both states is strengthening equal opportunity protections for LGBTIQ staff and students in religious schools.

“Since WA’s nation-leading anti-discrimination laws were first introduced, community expectations regarding discrimination have progressed and WA now lags behind most other jurisdictions,” Quigley said.

“This is not about granting additional rights to any one group of people, but ensuring all Western Australians are free from discrimination, harassment, vilification and victimisation.

“Whilst still subject to drafting and further consideration, it is our ambition that the new Bill will achieve a balance between the rights and interests of a wide variety of Western Australians and ensure that employers are not unnecessarily burdened with complex legislation.”

But Cheng has called on the state government to push back against some recommendations.

“Unless the government pushes back, it will be very difficult to operate a Christian school according to Christian principles and beliefs once they become law,” she said.

“The sign of a mature and tolerant society is allowing challenging and thought-provoking ideas in the areas of religion, science and the arts to thrive; suppressing religious expression only robs society of its diversity and richness.”

Law Society of WA president Rebecca Lee said while the Act posed a significant social reform when it was first introduced 38 years ago, the time had come to amend the legislation with a new anti-discrimination and broader human rights framework that protected all members of the community equally.

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