a) Gay Tasmania
Turning back the clock on equal opportunity
This article was published on Online Opinion on June 6th, 2007.
Something remarkable has happened in Tasmanian Catholic schools.
In the space a few short years they have gone from being places where gay students were commonly bullied, to places where many openly gay students feel safe and supported.
One indictor of change is that the state’s Catholic colleges have begun to implement the six week Pride and Prejudice anti-homophobia program, something inconceivable only five years ago.
Students testify to the change, with one recently declaring to me he has been “openly accepted into a warm community. Staff members have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that my pastoral care was accommodated for.”
Why the sudden transformation?
The answer to that question was immediately obvious to a group of senior Catholic secondary students who I encountered at a recent gay community event in Hobart: “the Anti-Discrimination Act”.
While Tasmania may have come late to anti-discrimination laws, when it finally arrived it didn’t skimp.
There are no exemptions in the state Act on the grounds of sexuality, and very few in other areas like sex or religion.
The students I spoke to believe these strong laws are the framework for the profound cultural changes from which they have benefited.
Unfortunately, all this may soon change.
The Tasmanian Catholic Church is lobbying the State Government for an exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act allowing it to discriminate in education on the grounds of religion.
At the announcement last week of a new Catholic College south of Hobart, Archbishop Adrian Doyle said the exemption is necessary to allow Catholic schools to give preference to Catholic students.
He wants to see the enrolment of Catholic students in Catholic school rise from the current 56% - the lowest figure in the nation - to 75%.
In Doyle’s words,
“The first obligation of Catholic education is to Catholic students and their families. (But) from a technical point of view, this places the Catholic education system … in breach of the Anti-Discrimination Act.”
It may be Doyle’s role to serve the faithful. But is it the primary obligation of his schools?
As the above figures show, the proportion of non-Catholic Tasmanian parents who chose a Catholic education for their children is very high.
These parents will be the first hit by the new quota. After many years of loyal support and regular fee-payment to their local Catholic school, they will now be sent to the back of the enrolment queue. What makes this particularly galling is that financial support from non-Catholic families has kept many Catholic schools afloat.
As well as its obvious obligation to non-Catholic supporters, the Catholic education system also has a clear obligation to taxpayers.
Since its inception in the 1950s, public funding of religious schools has been justified on the basis that parents deserve a choice when it comes to their children’s schooling.
To quote former Education Minister, Brendan Nelson,
“Committed to choice, the Coalition Government is determined that all parents, having paid their taxes, will receive support in the choice of school they believe best suits the interests of their child – State/Territory government, Catholic or Independent.”
The quota proposed in Tasmania, and the legislative amendment required to achieve it, will clearly reduce that choice. If this is allowed to happen, public funding should be reduced in direct proportion.
The other issue facing tax payers is the potential cost of the massive student transfer being proposed by the Catholic education system.
Doyle’s quota would reduce by almost half the number of non-Catholic students in Catholic schools. That’s effectively 3000 potential students out of a total Catholic school population of 15,000 who will no longer find places in these schools, and a corresponding 3000 students the Catholic system will have to lure from elsewhere onto Catholic campuses.
Where will the students who fall foul of Doyle’s quota go, and where will he find thousands to replace them? What if the whole scheme fails? What if state schools are left to accommodate hundreds of students who would otherwise have found places in Catholic schools, while Catholic schools suffer enrolment deficits, both because of their self-imposed quota and the negative message it sends, and then call for public bail-outs to stay solvent. Who will pay?
These are not my fears alone.
In 2005 Victoria’s Catholic Education Office conducted a review of its cap on non-Catholic students in the light of threatened litigation from disgruntled parents and predications that enrolment could drop by as much as 10%, sending smaller Catholic schools to the wall.
Some defenders of religious schools have responded to these practical concerns by retreating to the seemingly unassailable bastion of “religious freedom”.
From behind its walls Cardinal George Pell has recently advocated greater religiosity in Catholic schools, including “oaths of fidelity” for Principals.
But schools are not churches, nor principals clergy, especially when taxpayers fund them. Neither, according to the High Court, is religious freedom unqualified. It may fall before what the Court calls “an overriding public purpose”.
Such a purpose, in the view of many Australians, is the maintenance of basic standards of fairness, decent treatment and democratic pluralism.
In 2002 an eight year old boy was expelled from a Christian school in WA because his mother’s de facto relationship violated the school’s religious precepts. His family had no recourse because WA has an anti-discrimination exemption exactly like that being sought in Tasmania. But if these victims of discrimination had no friend in the law, they did in public opinion. Sparked by the expulsion, a wave of indignation swept Perth.
That outpouring of public anger would have come as no surprise to those familiar with opinion polls on the issue of private schools and public standards.
Between 80 and 90% of Australians believe religious schools should not be able to expel students who are gay or pregnant. The figure rises to 96% when respondents are asked if it’s good for students of different backgrounds and religions to mix at school.
In other words, the overwhelming majority of Australians are against the kind of discrimination that the exemption sought by the Tasmanian Catholic church would permit.
They are strongly against the sectarian environment it is aimed at creating.
They are for all Australian children having the same educational opportunities regardless of their religious faith or background.
These values are embodied in a wide range of education frameworks endorsed by successive federal and state governments, including the National Goals for Schooling in the 21st Century.
But nowhere in Australia are they are embodied as clearly and with as much force as they are in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act.
Watering down these protections would set a dangerous precedent in Tasmania and beyond.
How many other demands for exemptions, in areas such as sex, sexuality and relationship status, will religious institutions demand and be conceded?
The Anti-Discrimination Act already has provisions allowing the Commissioner to grant exemptions if she is convinced they are necessary.
The Church should go through this accountable and transparent semi-judicial process like everyone else.
Wasting Parliament’s time with special legislation is bound to provoke the ire of those Tasmanians who’ve had their fill of fast-track approval processes for powerful vested interests.
But as bad as an exemption will be for the integrity of the Anti-Discrimination Act, it will be far worse for the positive school culture I began by describing.
More supportive and inclusive leaning environments are important both for individual students and their school communities.
Schools that are safe are also schools with better educational outcomes.
But positive schools cultures can be undermined as quickly as they develop.
If the strength of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act has helped make schools safer places for everyone, weakening this law threatens to return us to a time when schools were not safe.
The role of anti-discrimination law is to protect the most vulnerable people in our community from prejudice and harassment.
The increased sense of safety felt by gay Catholics school students is one of the best litmus tests of the success of Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws in fulfilling this mission.
We cannot afford to jeopardise the gains we have made by turning back the clock of equal opportunity.
1. Pride and Prejudice program
“Breaking the spell of silence”
2. Percentage of non-Catholics in Tasmanian Catholic schools
Cardinal George Pell, “Religion and Culture: Catholic Schools in Australia: Keynote address to the 2006 National Catholic Education Conference”, Sydney, 28.9.06
3. Targets for Tasmanian Catholic school enrolment and amendments to the Anti-Discrimination Act
Archbishop Adrian Doyle, quoted on ABC TV News, 28.4.07, and in the Mercury, 31.5.07
4. Justification by choice
Dr Brendon Nelson, Learning Together: achievement through choice and opportunity, 11.5.04
5. Number of students in Tasmanian Catholic schools
Tasmanian Catholic Education Office, “2006 Full Time Enrolments by Year Level and Gender”
6. Catholic educators question enrolment caps for non-Catholic students
Vic CEO Director, Susan Pascoe, quoted in “Catholic school policy warning” by Chee Chee Leung, Education Reporter, The Age, April 8th, 2005
7. Oaths of fidelity
Cardinal George Pell quoted in “Pell plans fidelity oath for principals”, by Linda Morris, Religious Affairs Reporter, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4.6.07
8. “Overriding public purpose”
Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) 190 CLR 1
9. WA religious school expulsion
“Thrown out: school bans unmarried mum’s son”, by Susan Hewitt, The West Australian, 6.2.02
10. Private schools and public standards
Wilkinson et all, “The Accountability of Private Schools to Public Values”, The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper 71, Aug 2004.
11. National Goals for Schooling
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Openly accepted into a warm community. Staff members have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that my pastoral care was accommodated for.
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