Something remarkable has happened in Tasmanian Catholic schools.
In the space a few short years they have gone from being places where gay students were commonly bullied, to places where many openly gay students feel safe and supported. One indicator of change is that the state’s Catholic colleges have begun to implement the six-week Pride and Prejudice anti-homophobia program, something inconceivable only five years ago.
Students testify to the change, with one recently declaring to me he has been “openly accepted into a warm community. Staff members have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that my pastoral care was accommodated for.” Why the sudden transformation?
The answer to that question was immediately obvious to a group of senior Catholic secondary students who I encountered at a recent gay community event in Hobart: “the Anti-Discrimination Act”.
While Tasmania may have come late to anti-discrimination laws, when it finally arrived it didn’t skimp. There are no exemptions in the state Act on the grounds of sexuality, and very few in other areas like sex or religion. The students I spoke to believe these strong laws are the framework for the profound cultural changes from which they have benefited. Unfortunately, all this may soon change.
The Tasmanian Catholic Church is lobbying the State Government for an exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act allowing it to discriminate in education on the grounds of religion. At the announcement last week of a new Catholic College south of Hobart, Archbishop Adrian Doyle said the exemption is necessary to allow Catholic schools to give preference to Catholic students.
He wants to see the enrolment of Catholic students in Catholic school rise from the current 56 per cent - the lowest figure in the nation - to 75 per cent. In Doyle’s words:
“The first obligation of Catholic education is to Catholic students and their families. (But) from a technical point of view, this places the Catholic education system … in breach of the Anti-Discrimination Act.”
It may be Doyle’s role to serve the faithful. But is it the primary obligation of his schools?
As the above figures show, the proportion of non-Catholic Tasmanian parents who chose a Catholic education for their children is very high. These parents will be the first hit by the new quota. After many years of loyal support and regular fee-payment to their local Catholic school, they will now be sent to the back of the enrolment queue. What makes this particularly galling is that financial support from non-Catholic families has kept many Catholic schools afloat.
As well as its obvious obligation to non-Catholic supporters, the Catholic education system also has a clear obligation to taxpayers. Since its inception in the 1950s, public funding of religious schools has been justified on the basis that parents deserve a choice when it comes to their children’s schooling.
To quote former Education Minister, Brendan Nelson:
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