Catholic Church

Church must comply with education rules, court hearing is told

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2009, 12:00am

Freedom of religion as guaranteed in the Basic Law does not exempt a church from complying with education policy, the government has told the Court of Appeal.

The argument was put forward by Joseph Fok SC in response to an appeal by the Catholic Church against a ruling that affirmed the constitutionality of school management reforms introduced in 2004.

These required all schools to set up by 2012 their own incorporated management committees comprising 40 per cent elected representatives of parents, teachers and alumni, with the remaining 60 per cent appointed by sponsoring bodies.

The church, which runs 205 aided secondary and primary schools, complained that the reforms changed the entire atmosphere and culture of its school management by bringing in outsiders to become managers. The diocese said the reforms diluted its 100 per cent control of its schools and infringed the freedom provided for religious bodies under the Basic Law to conduct their own affairs unfettered by government interference. It also contended that the Basic Law provided that the education policy should only be developed 'on the basis of the previous system'.

But Fok said to say the Basic Law required the education system to remain 'entirely unchanged' was a too narrow and restricted interpretation. He said there was no conflict between the two articles in the Basic Law which provided for religious freedom and the government's right to develop educational policy.

The government wanted to make school management more transparent and accountable because of the huge amounts of money it provided to the schools, Fok said, describing it as a system of checks and balances in the interests of students.

He argued that the new policy did not cause any material change to the former practice, and religious philosophy remained unfettered.

'The 60 per cent ceiling does not prevent the organisation from running its school in accordance with its previous practice,' Fok said, adding that the view was affirmed by Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung in November 2006.

But Martin Lee Chu-ming SC, for the diocese, countered that the reforms broke down the unity of the church and took away the power it formerly enjoyed.

'People don't like outsiders coming in without 'like-thinking',' Lee said. 'Yes, you can win resolutions [by the 60 per cent ceiling] but that means you have to resort to voting every time. Twelve years after the handover, the government now wants to take away the control from the church.' He said the reforms violated the basic policy of '50 years: no change'.

In 2006, Cheung dismissed the diocese's application for a judicial review on the grounds that the protection of religious freedom did not extend to giving churches a veto over public education policies. In his judgment, he held that the government had the last say on education policy including the system, any inconsistent previous practice of religious organisations notwithstanding.

The appeal judges, Mr Justice Frank Stock, Mr Justice Wally Yeung Chun-kuen and Mr Justice Michael Hartmann, reserved their judgment yesterday.