I’m often told that it was “for my sins” that I was elected to the board of directors of Shire Christian School in Sydney’s south, but I rather enjoy the role, especially as it’s where my daughter attends. It’s an independent, self-consciously conservative Christian institution in the reformed theological tradition. Board and faculty members subscribe to a rigorous ten-point statement of faith which affirms as its “supreme standard” the “Scripture of the Old and New Testaments” which is “the infallible word of God,” read in light of the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Thirty Nine Articles (1563), the Canons of Dort (1619), the Westminster Confession (1646), and the London Baptist Confession (1689).
And as antiquated and counter-intuitive as it sounds, these sixteenth and seventeenth century doctrinal statements – and the way the school interacts with them – are the reason for the school’s burgeoning enrolment of over 800 young scholars. Students come from at least eleven Christian denominations and traditions, and there’s now a sizable group whose parents identify as having no religion at all.
But regardless of which category a parent at falls into, the anti-religious left wants to take away their right to choose this school and this kind of education for their children. Currently, religious schools are permitted, under federal discrimination legislation, to discriminate on the basis of religion, and this occurs almost exclusively in employment. The Greens have vowed to end all exemptions enjoyed by Christian, Jewish, Islamic and other religious schools (although curiously it’s only the Christians that get mentioned in the party’s campaign rhetoric) and Labor have all but promised to do likewise. Bill Shorten has mostly avoided discussing it but he reluctantly conceded, in obfuscatory but ultimately clear terms, that “at this point in time…we are not interested in telling religious organisations how to run their faith-based organisations.” Translation: tell the Greens to come and see me on the Monday after the election.
“The fundamental principle here is that Australians should be treated the same,” says Greens spokesman Senator Nick McKim. “And if the rest of the country is going to be required by legislation to behave in a particular way… we think that’s reasonable for the churches as well.”
Actually, Senator, it’s not reasonable at all. It’s as hypocritical as it is obtuse. An argumentative fourth-grader could point out the hypocrisy of the nation’s most puritanical political party calling for church membership to be opened up to whoever wants it. The Greens are, legally and morally, perfectly entitled to limit their membership to those who are pro-abortion, pro-same-sex marriage, pro-wind farms blighting the landscape, anti-religion and anti-religious freedom.
Fair enough, but surely I should be allowed to take the opposing view on all those things. And organisations such as churches – and religious schools – should be able to have equally strident policies in whatever direction they want. As much as they shriek hysterically about diversity, the reason the Greens want to treat every Australian the same (in the words of their diversity spokesman) is because they believe all Australians are basically identical, or at least should be.
And so when it comes to religious schools generally, and Christian schools specifically, the Left wants to see an identical output to the state schools, perhaps allowing for a smarter uniform or a more elaborate school badge. They fantasize about two dads picking up their daughter from a solar powered Catholic Safe School, perhaps sharing a joke with the parish trans-priest as they walk through an ornate sandstone gate. Or about a devout Islamic family attending speech day at a strict Calvinistic academy, with mother and daughters appropriately covered, of course. #illlearnwithyou.
Now the admissions policies of other people’s private schools don’t bother me in the slightest. They should all be free to open their enrolment up as described above, or in any way they choose. But they must also be allowed to exclude students to ensure the integrity of a school’s specific religious identity and ethos, and even for the sake of a child whose hijab, for example, at the Emmanuel Jewish school may leave them feeling slightly uncomfortable. Leftist policy argues that such discrimination is unnecessary and immoral, and Leftist rhetoric suggests it occurs daily. It isn’t and it doesn’t.
The Catholic primary school down the road from me, St Declan’s enrols mostly Catholic students, but not all. My alma mater, the Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral School took in, I recall, no shortage of non-conformists. Masada, a well-known Jewish college named for the Herodian hilltop fortress captured by the Romans in AD 74 now actively solicits enrolments from Gentiles. Even the Australian Islamic College of Sydney will educate junior infidels as long as the parents support the ethos and let their children learn Arabic. And certainly non-protestants (and as I said, atheists and agnostics) can enrol their kids at Shire Christian School. And they do!
And they do, not despite the religious commitments of the various schools, but because of them. Or more specifically, because of the religious commitments of the schools and their teachers.
This is where the Left’s planned removal of anti-discrimination exemptions becomes obtuse (not to mention tyrannical as it would force school administrators to act contrary to conscience, and schools contrary to their founding principles). While Labor pretends to support religious schools, and while the Greens pretend not to hate them, the reality is neither party actually understands them.
The Left can’t understand that what makes St Declan’s Catholic is not just that it’s named after a pre-Patrician saint of Munster, or that the facilities get an annual splash of holy water from a prince of the church. Rather, it’s that the teachers approach their work as a vocation – a calling – based around the doctrine defined by the Church and a centuries-old educational ethos.
Likewise, what makes an Islamic School Islamic is more than just the inclusion of hijabs on the uniform list and the exclusion of pork rolls from the canteen list, as exciting as both those things are to the Left’s evangelists for its own notion of Islam. Rather, it’s that the teachers are practicing Muslims, and that they teach English, Maths, and History, as well as Arabic, from an Islamic worldview.
And it’s a similarly deep religious commitment that sees my school – and many others like it – with often extensive waiting lists of Christian and non-Christian students. Their parents have heard about the caring environment, the dedication of the staff, the way education is understood as a collaborative endeavour with parents, the focus not just on academic excellence but on producing well-rounded graduates, and the firm foundation of Christianity that all students are deliberately exposed to, as teachers teach their faith and practice their religion, even according to a curious collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century doctrinal statements.
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