Majority keeping the faith in religious schools
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Majority keeping the faith in religious schools

Pot shots are taken regularly at religious schools whenever their beliefs come into conflict with the prevailing secular norms.

Now new polling from the Centre for Independent Studies suggests that storms about religious liberty in Australia are likely to grow in ferocity, rather than abate.

When it comes to religious schools employing staff, over half of Australians surveyed – 57 per cent – thought schools should not be able to discriminate on the basis of faith.

This raises the risk that constraints forcing schools to comply with secular norms might only tighten. And this is bound to have a broader impact on the very character of such schools.

After all, if a religious school is to retain its distinctive ethos, it makes sense that the staff it employs should be sympathetic to that ethos.

Latest in the firing line is the Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) which made a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) about religious liberty.

The PCA also stated that students are only capable of exercising Christian leadership in its schools if their lifestyles align with church teaching.

No one is threatened with expulsion; but the church says codes of Christian morality must determine who exercises student leadership. Predictably, all hell broke loose.

Criticism was especially fierce in Queensland where one minister described the church’s position as sending nothing less than a message of “hate and division”.

The CIS research indicates the tide might be turning against faith-based organisations, which could find themselves swept away in a treacherous rip of public opinion.

However, attempts to constrain the religious ethos of faith-based schools could provoke a backlash.

A sizeable minority — 37 per cent – believes religious schools should be able to discriminate on the basis of faith when employing staff.

If there is strong community support for a religious school being able to decide who it will employ, there is likely to also be support for letting staff shape that school’s ethos.

After all, parents who send their kids to religious schools know what they are signing up for – and usually paying for, too.

We should not forget that 90 per cent of non-government schools are religious schools, and that a substantial 34 per cent of Aussie kids are enrolled in them.

Parents seem to like what’s on offer in the non-government sector, where enrolment is out-pacing the government sector — and which is dominated by faith-based schools.

Anti-religion activists invariably point to the most recent census figures which show a steady rise in those reporting ‘no religion’ since 1971, when the question was first asked.

In 2021, those with no religious affiliation rose to 39 per cent, representing an increase of 2.8 million Australians since the last census in 2016 which recorded 31 per cent.

But while overall religious affiliation in Australia is declining, God is far from dead. New migrants are bringing their religious traditions with them to this country.

This explains the steady rise in non-Christian religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. Whereas Christianity has decreased, Australia’s religious diversity is actually increasing.

In early 2023, the ALRC wanted to remove the right of religious schools to preserve their ethos and teaching.

This position may well enjoy popular support. But not among those who want the state to protect — rather than undermine — the ethos of our religious schools.

Peter Kurti and Scott Prasser are the authors of the CIS paper Free to Speak and Free to Believe? What Australians think about freedom of speech.