Legislative Council: Wednesday, March 22, 2023


Religious Institutions

The Hon. S.L. GAME (16:08): I move:

That this council—

1. Recognises that there are over 100 practising religions in the South Australian community;

2. Recognises that every South Australian has the right to practise their faith in a safe and peaceful way;

3. Recognises the right to prayer and the right to worship are human rights under article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Australia is a signatory;

4. Recognises that schools, community, and welfare centres established under a religious affiliation have the right to practise their associated faith openly and freely;

5. Recognises that these same institutions have the right to employ those of their own moral code in both remunerated and voluntary positions; and

6. Ensures the continuation of section 34(3)(a) of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 to allow religious affiliated institutions the opportunity to employ those of morals and ethics consistent with their beliefs and practices.

Over 110,000 South Australian children currently attend schools overseen by Catholic Education in Australia, and nine religious and faith denominations under the banner of the Association of Independent Schools SA. It seems that every few years across Australia religious organisations and communities of faith are pressed under the microscope.

Once again, there are rumblings of changes to the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984, particularly regarding faith-led schools, their hiring practices and how openly they worship. It seems this is being done with little regard for the views and values of families, staff and leadership at faith schools. In SA, school faith leaders have expressed to me their genuine concerns due to the wider context of these issues across the country.

In Queensland, a review of the Anti-Discrimination Act includes proposals to further tighten the exemptions that provide the only protection for religious freedom. New South Wales—the only state, apart from SA, to not protect against religious discrimination—had a proposed bill to do so in 2021 rejected, and now there is a private member's bill flagged for 2023 to reduce religious freedom. In the ACT, a review of the Discrimination Act is currently underway. Faith leaders feel that the proposed amendment bill would drastically impact religious freedoms of churches.

In 2021 in Victoria, there was a tightening of their Equal Opportunity Act, which came into effect in June. Western Australia has a report reviewing their Equal Opportunity Act awaiting release, which includes a discussion paper on the narrowing of religious exemptions. The Northern Territory conducted a review in 2017 but has yet to release details, and at a federal level the proposed religious discrimination bill has further reviews scheduled for later in 2022.

As I have already stated, faith leaders from South Australian religious schools have a genuine right to be concerned. Current and valid polling research shows that three out of four Australians support the right of a religious school to employ teachers and other staff who support the clearly stated values and beliefs of the school. Over two-thirds of Australians believe that Australian laws should protect the right to hold and practise religious beliefs. Institutes of faith must be able to practise and teach that faith freely, safely and without legal claws restricting their religious practice.

Where is the evidence of any problems to do with employment within religious bodies? Changes to section 34 of the Equal Opportunity Act may open the door to tribunals or courts determining when a faith school can employ a person who shares their beliefs. It is not the government's place to decide matters of faith. Yes, all appropriately trained and licensed educators have the right to practise their profession, absolutely, yet deliberately choosing to work in an environment which is a juxtaposition to your own lifestyle and coming in with a personal agenda which attacks your employer's values simply makes for an uncomfortable and unhelpful learning environment.

Certainly, children should be exposed to social diversity in their educational journey, but let parents and institutes of faith guide the manner in which this occurs: when, what age and in what forum. This motion seeks to give faith school leaders reassurance that they are not under legislative attack from the South Australian parliament and that all legitimate faiths are welcomed, that they are able to practise and teach in line with state law and their own moral compass. I commend this motion to the house.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.