Intolerance in religious schools

steven-tudorDr Steven Tudor

An audio version (MP3 4.3MB) of this opinion piece read by Dr Steven Tudor is also available.

A Christian school in Melbourne’s west recently refused to offer a training placement to a Muslim student teacher (The Age, 25/03/09). The refusal was clearly based on the religious difference between the student teacher and the school. The Principal was quoted as saying that accepting the student teacher “would have been confusing for the kids. It’s not that we have anything against her or her beliefs; we just felt it was an inappropriate placement.”

The school was most likely within its legal rights in excluding a student teacher who does not share its faith. The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995 gives religious schools plenty of leeway in excluding people who are not of the same religious belief.

However, this legal exemption for religious schools raises fundamental issues about how to achieve the right balance between religious freedom and responsible educational practices.

There can be little doubt that a church or other religious group should be free to exclude from its buildings and from its various activities those people who do not belong to that church or organisation. This is an integral part of what freedom of religion requires. It might be nice if all religious groups were inclusive; it might even be very Christian. But a certain level of intolerance of other beliefs is a part of what religious freedom allows. This permissible intolerance also reflects an even broader principle that any private person or group should be free to exclude from their private premises whomever they wish to exclude.

The problem is that when a church or a religious group starts running a school there is much more at stake. This is because we are no longer dealing just with religious freedom but also with responsible education. Here the scope of religious freedom needs to be limited by the values that the community more broadly wants to see pursued in schools. No one would seriously suggest that a religious school could do anything it likes under the shield of religious freedom, as if it had no further responsibilities as a school.

What are those further responsibilities that come with being a school? One place to turn for guidance is the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia signed in 1990. Article 29 provides, in part, that the countries which are parties to the Convention agree that a child’s education shall be directed, among other things, to “the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin”.

Pursuit of this highly laudable goal is particularly important in a country like Australia where diversity is part of what we are and have long been. In Victoria, the educational goal of religious tolerance is reflected in the Education and Training Reform Regulations 2007, which require that schools “support and promote the principles and practice of Australian democracy, including a commitment to … freedom of religion … [and] the values of openness and tolerance”.

Children will, of course, most often learn their values from the examples they see around them, especially the examples set by those in authority. It cannot be helpful, then, for children in any school (religious or secular) to see intolerance and discrimination being practised in front of them or to have any religious difference hidden from them at school.

If the religious intolerance practised at a religious school gets bad enough, then it may well be that the school has failed to fulfil its legal obligations under the Regulations. If so, then it may rightly lose its official registration as a school.

I am not suggesting that the particular Christian school referred to earlier is anywhere near the level of intolerance that would merit this response. But there must be a limit to how far any school (whether religious or not) may practice religious intolerance, after which the general community would say that it should in fact cease to be regarded as a school.

For example, it would be beyond the pale for a Christian school to conduct “comparative religion” classes in which students were regularly instructed that faiths other than Christianity are to be despised as evil, or that adherents of other faiths — and indeed faithless atheists — are doing the work of the Devil and must be shunned. This would be unacceptable in a school even if such doctrines were an integral part of the beliefs of the church that ran the school. Moreover, the fact that espousing such doctrines in religious services away from the school should rightly be protected, under the shield of religious freedom, does not make it acceptable to teach them in the school as part of the school’s educational program.

To teach such views should bring seriously into question whether such an institution should be registered as a school, if that is to mean a place of education and learning.