Anglican school heads are delighted their alumni are demonstrating civic engagement and ethical concern for equal rights in responding to a letter signed by 34 of us in support of our need to operate our schools in accordance with our values. That is what we educated them to do. What some do not realise is that we agree with them.
The exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation should be removed. They are unnecessary, anachronistic and not used. Alumni want them removed today. We want them removed tomorrow, that is, at the next sitting date of Parliament.
Is this different? Only in so far as heads want to see legislation introduced now to implement a raft of protections for basic freedoms, including freedom of religion, as appropriate in a liberal democracy and pluralistic society. These are necessary in Australia, which lacks a Bill of Rights. We are not arguing specifically for such a bill, but for the enshrinement in law of positive freedoms relevant to Australians across a broad spectrum.
Currently, the ability of an Anglican school to function according to its ethos is protected only by anti-discrimination legislation exemptions across a suite of legislation. It is only upon these we can rely to conduct our schools with the values for which our parents have enrolled. It is a caricature, and misleading, to reduce this to matters of sexual preference.
It is perhaps ironic that our present students and parents are largely unconcerned about all of this. They know from their current lived experience that our schools are inclusive, welcoming places which do not practice discrimination. Some of our alumni fear our schools are changing from this culture. They are not. We are actually trying to protect it.
What is at stake here, and why does it matter? Despite how it has been framed, it is not about gays and discrimination. It is about whether all schools in Australia must be the same, bland, lowest common denominator replica of one another. It is about whether schools with a religious base should be allowed to exist, and parents should have the right to choose them. The most strident voices would say yes and no and no in turn to these questions. More than one third of Australian parents, most of them perhaps not particularly religious, have voted with their feet in favour of these schools.
The right to freedom of religion is contained within the United Nations Civil and Political Charter, which Australia has ratified. Such freedoms are important in a civil society. Our politicians need to do more to codify them in our own laws.
What then do Anglican heads want? First, along with our critics, we want the removal of exemptions which make it lawful to discriminate on grounds of sexuality, AND, second and concurrently, we want to encourage a sensible discussion that upholds freedom of religion, and other important freedoms, in a contemporary, pluralist and democratic nation. This should lead in timely fashion to new and better law which can easily be supported by most Australians.
The way current legislation is framed has allowed the issue to be interpreted as about discriminating against gays. It was never about that.
We need, therefore, a sensible discussion which draws on and demonstrates our national traits: inclusive, tolerant, caring, supporting diversity; actually, just like the reality of our Anglican schools.
Dr John Collier
Head of School