Page 4895 - Week 13 - Tuesday, 27 November 2018

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The bill amends the exemptions for religious educational bodies and requires that a policy of religious doctrine be made public if it is to be relied upon under the act. These changes are appropriate and, as Mr Coe has already confirmed, the Canberra Liberals do not have an issue with this. However, I reiterate Mr Coe’s concern about the lack of detail about what this actually entails and about the lack of consultation this government has had with our faith-based schools in bringing forward this bill.

The government bill also excludes the entirety of section 33 of the act. This is the section that allows a religious school to, well, be a religious school. I initially thought that it may have been an oversight and not an intention to prevent religious schools from providing education in accordance with their specific religious doctrine. But, given the debate that has preceded my speech, it seems clear that it was the government’s intention to do so. If that is the case, then the government must explain to our community why it is taking that one step too far to remove the religious freedom of our faith-based schools.

The unforeseen impact of this would be to prevent a religious school, a school that is clearly promoted as a religious school, from requiring students to participate in the religious activities of that school. This would include educational classes, attending religious services and prayer, namely the types of activities that make a religious school a religious school. This goes to the principle of what a religious education is about. It is not unreasonable to assume that when parents decide on an education for their children at a faith-based school they understand, accept and expect that they will receive an education based on the religious doctrines of that school.

It is not a requirement that a child adopt or convert to the religion of the school or, as the Chief Minister has stated, take communion. But it is appropriate and reasonable for a faith-based school to require participation and that, merely by doing so, it is not going to open itself up to prosecution for discrimination. The concerns the Chief Minister raised and the example he gave about communion are just plain wrong. I commend Mrs Dunne for bringing that to the attention of the Assembly.

Mr Coe’s amendments provide a necessary right for religious schools—Catholic, Protestant, Islamic or any other faith—to require a student who chooses to attend that school to participate in the religious educational classes taught at that school. This provision is important to ensure that children and parents who agree that a faith-based school is the best educational avenue fully understand the particulars of the religious doctrine at that school and accept that the school’s religious education is part of the pedagogy of that school. A school’s actions in delivering such an education should not be at the risk of falling foul of the law.

As Mr Coe mentioned, he negotiated in good faith with Labor and the Greens on a further amendment to mirror the government’s bill in both form and spirit by requiring the policy to be publicly available for prospective families and to further mandate that any requirement for engaging in religious activities must be reasonable in the circumstances. However, given their absolute reluctance then, and now just digging their heels in in refusal, to even consider that proposed amendment, there is no point in Mr Coe seeking leave to move it.

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