Astonishingly, the answer to the question posed here, recently provided by the Queensland Department of Education and Training is: No! In their latest reviews of material used in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) offered in public schools in that State, they assert as follows:
While not explicitly prohibited by the [relevant legislation], nor referenced in the [Departmental published] RI policy statement, the Department expects schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI are evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.
(This statement is found both in the Report on the Review of the GodSpace Religious Instruction Materials, March 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 5, and in the Report on the Review of the ACCESS ministries’ Religious Instruction Materials, Feb 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 6.)
In this post I want to explain why this over-reaching bureaucratic imposition is not justified by the law governing the Department’s activities, and indeed is probably illegal.
A brief update on the status of some proposed Victorian legislation I have previously mentioned as being a bad idea. It is good to see that all three bills have been defeated in the Victorian Parliament. Two of them would have interfered with the running of religious schools, as well as other religious organisations. The third would have created a range of problems in its interaction with Federal marriage law.
The Victorian Government introduced the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 into its Parliament on 30 August 2016. It has passed the Legislative Assembly without amendment, and is presently before the Legislative Council. The Bill proposes the amendment of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) to make it more difficult for a religious body to claim that it is not “discriminating” when it declines to hire, or fires, someone whose behaviour or convictions is contrary to the ethos of the body. The amendments introduce an “inherent requirements” test which must be satisfied in order for such an action to be viewed as falling outside the prohibition in the legislation on detrimental treatment based on “religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity” (the “Victorian prohibited grounds”).
I have commented in a previous post as to why I think this is poor legislation from a policy perspective. In that previous post I briefly noted that an argument could be made that some of the amendments, at least, would be unconstitutional. Since that previous post I have looked into the area further and am fairly sure that this is the case. Here I want to develop the case a bit further.
On 30 August 2016 the Victorian Attorney-General introduced into the Victorian lower house the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016. The Bill proposes to “amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to modify the religious exceptions in relation to the employment of a person by religious bodies and schools”. I would like to suggest that, if enacted, it will fundamentally impair the religious freedom of faith-based organisations. In fact, it might also be found to be constitutionally invalid and of no effect.
The recent decision of the NSW Court of Appeal in Hoxton Park Residents Action Group Inc v Liverpool City Council  NSWCA 157 (5 July 2016) is one of the most important court decisions on the scope of s 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution for some years. The Court held that the Federal Government does not breach the Constitution by “establishing” a religion when it provides funds through the State government to support the operation of a Muslim school. The Court also comments in passing on other important aspects of s 116 to do with “imposing a religious observance” and “prohibiting the free exercise of religion”. In this note I will aim to outline the broad features of the decision, though its full implications will have to be worked out in more detail as time goes on.
Recently a Greens MP in Victoria, Sue Pennicuik, has introduced a Bill into the Victorian Parliament to reduce the ability of religious schools to deal with potential admissions, or their current student body, on the basis of the school’s religious beliefs. The Equal Opportunity Amendment (Equality for Students) Bill 2016 had its second reading in the Legislative Council on 22 June 2016.
The legislation is arguably an impairment of the religious freedom of parents and the schools, and ought not to be passed.
Press reports today (e.g.”Qld govt to review religious education“, Courier-Mail, 7 June 2016) indicate that a school Principal in Queensland has written to parents at his school indicating that he is cancelling the usual Religious Instruction (RI) classes, on the basis that he has discovered the lessons involve “proselytising” (a term which he says refers to “soliciting a student… to change their religious affiliation”). The Queensland Government in response to the press reports has indicated that it will be reviewing materials used to ensure they comply with relevant rules.
Does this mean a radical change has recently taken place in a program which has been operating for many years allowing parents to send their children to RI (elsewhere sometimes called “Scripture” or “Special Religious Education”) classes for a short period each week? Actually, no. It seems that the Principal has misread the relevant provisions, and the Queensland Government really doesn’t need to react to the misleading interpretation.