The head of one of the country’s most prestigious private schools — located in Malcolm Turnbull’s electorate — has warned that unless the Prime Minister secures amendments to the same-sex-marriage bill to protect faith-based schools, they could be at risk of being defunded or even de-registered.
In an 11th-hour plea to parliament, Ian Lambert, the principal of Scots College in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, said independent schools could be forced to “comply or die”, while parents would be stripped of their rights to choose the type of education they wanted for their children.
Parliament is expected to begin a heated debate today over protection amendments, which will be moved by up to a dozen senior Liberal MPs and cabinet ministers, including Treasurer Scott Morrison.
The heads of leading independent schools representing more than 200,000 students this week wrote to parliament, seeking assurances that they would be shielded from the changes to the Marriage Act. In a bid to escalate pressure on up to six moderate Liberals who are expected to cross the floor and vote with Labor to defeat the amendments, conservative backbencher Andrew Hastie will move to table the letters, addressed through him, in the parliament.
In a caution to Mr Turnbull to honour his promise of protections, Dr Lambert noted in his letter there were 10 Catholic, six Protestant and three Jewish schools representing almost 14,000 students in Mr Turnbull’s electorate, all with strong religious foundations.
The Australian revealed last week that Mr Turnbull intended to support some amendments, pertaining to the protection of faith-based charities. But he has passed on other proposed amendments, that would include parental rights and protection for schools, to an inquiry to be headed by Philip Ruddock, who was attorney-general in the Howard government. The inquiry will not report until next year.
Dr Lambert was backed by the senior ranks of the Presbyterian Church, which operates elite schools including Scots College, Scotch College and Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne, and private schools in Liberal and Nationals seats across the country.
“The Prime Minister, my local member, has given his assurance that religious beliefs, freedoms and expression will not be limited as a result of this new legislation,” Dr Lambert wrote. “Will the withdrawal of government funding or registration to independent schools be used as a blunt instrument to force schools with religious foundations to comply or die if they continue to uphold religious beliefs and values that have shaped Western civilisation for thousands of years?’’
In a separate letter to the parliament sent through Mr Hastie, who is among a group of outspoken conservatives vehemently opposed to the Dean Smith bill in its current form, the Presbyterian Church’s moderator-general, John Wilson, and convenor John McClean said that under the proposed legislation they could be prevented from hiring teachers aligned to the school’s religious principles and forced to teach the new definition of marriage.
“The Presbyterian Church operates a number of schools and we are particularly concerned that these should be free to operate in consistency with the classic view of marriage in Christianity,” they wrote. “Parliament needs to provide clear protections for schools in relation to syllabus and employment practices.”
Education Minister Simon Birmingham wrote to independent schools in August reassuring them they would be protected in hiring of staff and that the Smith bill would not have any impact on these protections under section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act. “The Turnbull government will always ensure that religious bodies and educational institutions are able to operate in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their religion, including respective views on marriage,” he wrote.
Mr Hastie said the amendments proposed by conservatives sought to protect the religious character and tradition of many of Australia’s independent schools.
“To preserve that freedom for parents, we must safeguard the religious character of our independent schools and their freedom to teach in accordance with their convictions,” he said. “We need to do this now, not in six months.”
Frontbencher Michael Sukkar said the amendments would be “the only safeguards for parents, schools, churches, individuals and charities against those who refuse to tolerate traditional or religious views on marriage”.
In his speech to the lower house last night, leader of the house Christopher Pyne — a champion for same-sex marriage — said the separation of church and state was at the foundation of Australia’s “civil order”.
“I do not support the insertion of unnecessary amendments,” Mr Pyne said. “As a matter of principle, acts of parliament should not contain superfluous clauses, especially superfluous clauses based on the opinion that Australia’s laws don’t adequately protect the religious freedoms that we have cherished since Federation. I firmly believe that they do.”
Mr Turnbull and Mr Pyne yesterday issued a stern rebuke to Tony Abbott in the joint partyroom, rejecting his push for a second reading amendment to the same-sex marriage bill in the lower house.
Additional reporting: Joe Kelly