The Parliamentary Inquiries into Religious Freedom
This week has seen the spectacle of another inquiry into religious freedom. This time considering the exemptions faith based schools have in relation to students and staff. This Inquiry only ran for two weeks and had a day of hearings. Evidence given was inconsistent and incoherent - many submissions and witnesses simply misunderstood the current law and gave strange advice about the best way forward. The great frustration of course was that these issues had been raised in thousands of submissions to the Ruddock Inquiry. Schools had been rigorously questioned about their policy and practice and their opinions on exemptions. The Expert Panel had months to come to a carefully considered position. The government has had that report for six months. This is what the Parliament needs to look at if we are to have good laws. But we still have no report. Instead we have selective leaking through Fairfax with headlines like ‘Secret plan to expel gay students.’ There is of course no such plan. This has not happened. But it was sufficient to create social media outrage, calls for immediate repeal of the exemptions and defunding of schools that might resist these changes.
Ironically, the great untold story was far more interesting. LGBT activists and conservative Christians were actually in furious agreement that an ‘exemptions regime’ was not an appropriate way to protect religious freedom. Both agreed that the exemptions should be repealed. There are differences of course, as to whether, what & when positive affirmations of freedom of belief should be legislated to protect the rights of schools to operate according to their beliefs.
These issues are not simple and they are contested. We are better not to have such important laws made in a rush. Media and social media inevitably frame these issues around conflict and lazy assumptions about the motivations of those involved. This has been a difficult season for many students, teachers and schools who needlessly were dragged into a story that was not of their making.
Next week we are likely to see legislative reform in relation to students in schools. The toxicity of the debate around exemptions may prove to politicians that they are in fact irredeemable and that a new and better way is needed. That would be a welcome outcome to a frustrating process.