Not just in Victoria but across Australia, the Christian school movement is responding to the Andrews administration’s stricter laws on employing Christian personnel.
At the Freedom For Faith National Conference this week, Mark Spencer, Policy Director of Christian Schools Australia, outlined the effects of the Victorian government’s Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Act 2021. This law calls for an “inherently required test” for religious schools that favor people of faith.
For example, schools look “to see if their statements of faith sufficiently encompass their beliefs, especially for those schools that may not have looked at their constitution in a while,” Spencer tells Eternity.
“I think I gave the example of a receptionist position where the role description focused on (some) of the most important practical tasks involved – but there had always been an understanding that the role involved participation in the prayer and spiritual life of the school would represent, represent the Christian life of the school until first examinations, be a pastoral support for families coming to the front office, provide support and prayer for students seeking emergency treatment.”
Believing that a school community with all Christian staff is more effective at transmitting the faith to students, “Christian schools” strive to employ only Christian staff.
(Eternity uses the term “Christian schools” because this is the term that usually refers to elementary or middle schools that only want to employ Christians. It doesn’t mean other schools aren’t Christian.)
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Spencer led the Freedom For Faith conference through portions of the bill’s explanatory memorandum, contrasting the bill’s goals with how a Christian school wants to operate.
“In most religious schools, it would be an inherent requirement of a position in religious education that employees must adhere strictly to the doctrines, beliefs, or principles of the school’s religion,” the Explanatory Memorandum (EM) says. “On the other hand, a support position, such as a gardener or maintenance worker, is unlikely to have religious conformity as an inherent requirement of their role.”
The Christian schools rewrite their job descriptions to document the staff-student relationships involved in Spencer’s example.
Another example of the EM put forward by Spencer involved prayer and what happens when a teacher loses faith.
“For example, conformity to religion may be an inherent requirement in a school as a teacher, where teachers generally lead students in prayer,” the EM says. “A teacher can change his religious beliefs, so it is no longer appropriate for him to lead prayers. In determining whether dismissal is a reasonable and proportionate measure, the school may consider whether another teacher could take on this role as part of its assessment.”
This EM statement suggests that it takes more than a formal prayer to start the day or a lesson to claim an inherent requirement under worship.
Another part of the EM suggests that using non-Christians as casual teachers would mean that a school has shown no inherent requirement for believing teachers.
“…it may not be reasonable and proportionate to fire a teacher who is willing to convey the religious views of the school, even if they differ from their own.”
Another part of the EM concerns a wider range of schools and whether religious education is authentic. A “teacher continues to promote the school’s religious views on marriage to students, but also tells students that there are people in the wider community who have different views on it” does the ey put forward one scenario. “Depending on the circumstances, it may not be reasonable and proportionate to fire a teacher who is willing to convey the religious views of the school, even if they differ from their own.” This scenario would be a difficult situation for the teacher and the school.
These are hard rules for Christian schools, but they are determined to hold on to their vision of a community based on a Christian staff. Spencer points out that these schools are growing with more enrollments and long waiting lists. “Capacity is our problem,” he says.
Other religious schools, including conservative evangelical schools, employ a wider range of staff and favor faithful people for critical positions.
The other side of this story is the staff leaving the school because they do not meet the school requirements. Spencer told the FFF conference that the activity of heterosexuals outside of marriage was the main reason for discipline in the small number of issues related to faith and belief. An unintended consequence of Victorian law could be schools tightening their rules, leading to the dismissal of staff.
Making it clear that the schools that only hire Christian, Jewish, or Muslim staff may only make up 10 percent of the independent sector — despite their growth — would take some of the heat off this debate.
The Labor Party tells Eternity they will not adopt the Victorian model. That task is inherent in their policy (pun intended). Yet the example of the law passed by the Andrews administration shows how difficult it is to balance competing human rights.
Labor wants to give schools the right to prefer pastoral staff – and protect other groups in the community from discrimination.
The coalition has now announced it will pass the entire religious discrimination bill if reelected. Still, Bridget Archer — one of five Liberal rebels who voted against it — is adamant she will continue to vote it down.