Darwin’s Catholic Bishop has threatened to shut the Northern Territory’s Catholic schools if anti-discrimination legislation passes the parliament this week.
Faith-based groups are furious the territory government plans to remove an exemption which allows religious schools to refuse to hire staff who don’t uphold the school’s ethos.
Bishop Charles Gauci said if the bill passes he would seriously consider closing the NT’s 18 Catholic colleges and schools.
“If we cannot have proper Catholic schools in our school (system), and I’m sure that will be true for many other of the faith schools as well … if you cannot be authentic, what’s the point of having them,” he said.
More than 100 people from different faith-based groups gathered on the steps of Darwin’s St Mary’s Star of the Sea Cathedral on Saturday to protest the proposed new laws.
Bishop Gauci said the legislation could mean a religious school could be forced to appoint an atheist to a leadership position.
“We want it clearly stated that our schools can keep their identity, our school principals, the leaders, those involved in religious education will all be able to be people of our faith because they are religious leaders,” he said.
The legislation has caused a split in the ranks of the Northern Territory Labor Party.
Former Labor Attorney-General and Education Minister Chris Burns, former Health Minister and Speaker Jane Aagaard and Federal Labor MP Luke Gosling attended Saturday’s rally.
“The Christian and the Catholic schools are vitally important to Aboriginal education here in the Northern Territory and I always look for partnerships in there, but this seems to be causing divisions which isn’t in the best interests of the students,” Mr Burns said.
“So I’d urge the Government to be working with these sectors to come up with a solution and I think that solution is going to come through the Commonwealth.”
Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct a review into religious discrimination.
He has appointed New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Stephen Rothman to lead the inquiry, which will advise on the best way to protect staff in religious schools from discrimination while maintaining the right of religious schools to hire staff from their own faith.
“This is the approach we need in the Territory,” Mr Gosling said. “One that doesn’t prioritise one community’s concerns over another, but that offers mutual protections to balance each side’s legitimate concerns.”
But Northern Territory Attorney-General Chansey Paech said the Government would proceed with the legislation.
He said the bill reflected “the broader view in the community that equal rights and protections are afforded to all Territorians”.
“We absolutely acknowledge and respect the role of faith right across the Northern Territory but it is important to acknowledge these changes will not prohibit a faith-based school from delivering those faith-based elements within the school,” he said.
“This is certainly not an attack, we are not closing down faith-based schools, we respect and value their role in the community but we also respect and value the role of each and every Territorian and making sure that they have equal protections and rights is at the core of the Territory’s values and that’s what we wanted to make sure was represented in the anti-discrimination bill.”
Bishop Gauci said the church would consider legal action if the bill passes as expected this week.
“They have to be careful because this is thousands of people (affected), and there are elections,” he said.