May 23, 2019

Australia Church Leaders Discuss Religious Liberty Challenges to Education

Tracey Bridcutt, Adventist Record

While some experts consider the last Australian election result, in which the incumbent Scott Morrison was re-elected, was the best outcome for faith-based schools, nothing should be taken for granted, Seventh-day Adventist education leaders were warned on May 20, 2019.

About 160 Adventist school leaders from around Australia are attending the “Setting the Course” educational leadership conference in Sydney — an Adventist Education initiative held biennially. The three-day event ends on May 21.

The May 20 morning session saw Michael Worker, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist Church in Australia, give a presentation on religious freedom.

“Religious freedom has become one of the hottest topics in Australia in recent years,” Worker said. “And while it didn't receive a lot of mainstream media attention in the lead-up to the election that was held last weekend, we believe it was a significant sleeper issue for the political parties. There is no doubt that neither of the political parties wanted to address it, deal with it, have it on the front line, but as you no doubt have seen in the last few days of the campaign, it broke through.”

Worker said Australia is the only Western democracy in the world without any positive protections for religious freedom, a situation that is “quite alarming.”

“We have traded on societal goodwill until this point, and while we can breathe a sigh of relief with the election results on the weekend, there is still a long way to go to ensure positive protections for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in Australia,” he said.

“The challenge for every one of us in the room is that schools are currently ground zero in this battle. Recent attempts by [Senator] Penny Wong to remove our ability to employ teachers and staff who will uphold the beliefs, values, and ethos of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are a prime example of this. As a church, we are taking this threat seriously [because it is a] threat to the ministry and mission of Adventist education.”

Keynote speaker Michael Stead, an Anglican, has been heavily involved in Australia’s religious freedom debate.

“Despite the outcome of the federal election … the reality is that faith-based schools are still going to face very significant challenges, particularly in the next 12 months or so if we are to ensure that our schools continue to have the freedom to operate according to their faith-based ethos,” Stead said.

“We shouldn’t take anything for granted. Let’s be very serious about the very steep road ahead of us.”

Stead said last year’s Ruddock review into religious freedom raised questions that remain unresolved and have now been referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC).

“And so whether we like it or not this issue will be very much on the agenda in the second half of this year when the ALRC will produce draft legislation and invite public comment,” Stead said.

“The ALRC has been asked to work out what is the appropriate way to balance two rights: the right to thought, conscience, and belief, with the right to equality and non-discrimination.”

School leaders were encouraged to be very clear about the doctrines, tenets, and beliefs of the Adventist education system.

“We need to stand firm for those things we believe, to be clear about them and to teach them clearly in our schools without fear,” Stead said.

The conference was also an opportunity to set the course for the future direction of Adventist education in Australia.

“And we are looking for the wisdom in the room to come forward and to help guide where we go with Adventist education,” Adventist Schools Australia national director Daryl Murdoch explained.

“The aim [of the conference] is to affirm our leaders, to inspire our leaders, to refresh our leaders spiritually, and to value our leaders so that in the tough challenges they face … they feel part of a team, they feel valued and inspired to go back and lead with passion,” he said.

The original version of this story was posted by Adventist Record.