Labor reaches out to religious communities with faith and climate summit

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: AAP</span>
Photograph: AAP

Kristina Keneally expresses support for every school to require all staff to ‘live out and profess’ its values

Labor will extend an olive branch to religious communities through a faith and climate summit on Thursday, Kristina Keneally has revealed.

The ALP’s deputy leader in the Senate announced the outreach effort in a webinar with the Christian lobby group FamilyVoice on Monday evening, in which she also expressed support for every school to require all staff to “live out and profess” its values.

Labor is yet to decide its final position on the religious discrimination bill, pending two parliamentary inquiries to run over summer and report back by 4 February.

Keneally’s comments are noteworthy because overriding state laws with more limited religious exemptions to discrimination law, such as Victoria’s legislation, is one of the key reasons LGBT advocates have urged Labor to block the bill.

Related: ‘A new church’: why a Uniting reverend is preaching to Anglicans in a gay couple’s home

She told FamilyVoice that the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, had sought to reconnect with faith communities through a series of multi-faith roundtables discussing shared values including social services, aged care, care for the environment and reducing economic inequality.

While giving Labor’s pitch for election promising “renewal not revolution”, Keneally also cited biblical passages as an inspiration for progressive values.

“We recognise the creation and proclaim to the glory of God and we are commanded to care for it,” she said.

Keneally said Thursday’s “faith and climate” summit will be attended by Albanese and the shadow climate change minister, Chris Bowen, who has invited faith leaders “to speak about our plans for addressing the challenge of climate change and seeking that common ground where we can work together”.

The senator accused the Greens of being “hostile” to organised religion and people of faith. On the religious discrimination legislation, Keneally reiterated that Labor supports people of faith having “the right to act according to the doctrines” of their faith, subject to limits including recognition of the “fundamental rights of others”.

Legal changes should not remove protections against discrimination on other grounds, she said.

The religious discrimination bill would allow schools to discriminate on the grounds of religion in their hiring practices, provided they publish a public policy explaining their ethos.

A new clause would allow the federal government to override state laws on educational institutions’ employment practices, including laws passed in Victoria on Friday which limit schools’ ability to discriminate to instances where “religious belief is an inherent requirement of the job”.

Keneally said she believed a Muslim school “has a right” not to hire teachers of another faith and can “make decisions based on hiring those who can uphold those values”.

The Labor senator said some people have suggested “only religion teachers need to be of the religious faith” and questioned why a maths teacher, an employee in a front office or a gardener should need to share the same values.

“What I know from my life and my experiences ... it’s an ecosystem, it’s a community of faith and values,” she said, citing her experience as a former Catholic schoolteacher and mother of children who attended Catholic schools.

“Whether it’s the sports coach that leads prayers before you go out on the basketball court, whether it’s the homeroom or classroom teacher who has to take children through the liturgy, whether it’s staying after school to help supervise sacramental preparation.

“All of those aspects – even the values you live out and profess while you are interacting with people – all of those things are inherent in the job.”

Her comments seemingly put Keneally at odds with Labor counterparts in Victoria, where the attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, has accused the Morrison government of seeking to “entrench discrimination in federal laws”.

Symes has said she is “disappointed” by the federal bill and would “very firmly oppose” any attempt to override Victorian anti-discrimination laws, including through a possible high court challenge.

LGBT advocates, including Equality Australia’s chief executive, Anna Brown, have praised the Victorian reforms which ensure that a religious organisation “can only discriminate against people based on religion when religion is actually relevant to the role”.

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