A school in Brisbane has been the subject of public remonstrance over an enrolment contract foisted on to parents last week which appears to allow the school to expel LGBTI students and those who present as anything other than their “biological sex”. The Citipoint Christian College is a Pentecostal school whose governing body believes that homosexuality is morally equivalent to paedophilia. The contract is almost certainly in breach of the state of Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act (and the state education board is investigating) but if the federal Liberal government gets its way, that won’t matter. In any case, the contract is abhorrent and could potentially get the school in trouble — but not for the reasons you would think.
The government is pushing ahead with its religious discrimination bill which, unlike similar anti-discrimination laws in Australia, seeks to override state anti-discrimination laws in a manner previously unseen. This is widely seen to have been done in response to laws similar to those recently introduced in the ACT, Victoria, and Tasmania to protect queer students from expulsion and queer teachers in secular roles from termination.
Even if it were legal, the contract is abhorrent — even by religious school standards — and should be withdrawn as over a hundred thousand people have asked the school to do.
My objections have little to do with the school’s beliefs, though I do not share them. The school can express its views about various subjects without administratively discriminating against their students or abrogating their responsibilities over queer students, as thousands of religious schools across Australia do everyday.
The contract is clearly not about religion
Plenty of straight students and teachers at Citipointe would likely engage in behaviours deemed by Pentecostal Christianity to be sinful regularly, but the contract does not appear to allow their expulsion on these grounds. Are we to believe that students at Citipointe has never lied to their parents, for example?
The point of the Citipointe contract appears to be solely to exclude people on the grounds of their immutable characteristics — their sexual orientation and gender identity— rather than to exclude people on solely religious grounds.
No “faith-based education” in sight
Plenty of arguments advanced about the nature of religious schools and queer children are ignorant of the reality of these schools. Apologists insist that students at these religious schools are going for a “faith-based education” and should, therefore, expect faith-based enrolment criteria and so on. That is the school’s defence for its conduct which, as I will explain in the next section, will likely place them in a legally precarious position. It is, however, not an accurate description of how a religious school — of any denomination — operates in Australia.
In Australia, religious schools are not especially religious. They may hold liturgy and mass, they might hold prayer in assembly and after lunch, they might even have missionaries on staff, but the actual schooling part of the school — the education — is almost entirely the same as one would receive at a public school.
All schools in Australia, whether religious or not, award some kind of recognised qualification that is relied upon by employers and higher education providers. As such, every unit taught in a school needs to be approved by any combination of the state education department, another state government entity (such as a Board of Secondary Studies), or a private, but widely recognised, equivalent organisation like the International Baccalaureate.
Additionally, schooling is compulsory in Australia for people under 16 and the government only recognises schools with government accreditation for this purpose.
In Australian schools, Religious Education units usually consist of English, history or philosophy classes with a religious theme. For example, a unit teaching the history of a particular religion or a philosophy class with a particular focus on Christian theology.
These classes may require a teacher who shares the religious world-view of the school’s governing body, but they are not faith-y classes and students of other faiths (or no faith at all) should have little trouble passing.
Therefore, a religious school only has a “faith-based education” about one-sixth of the time (assuming the school has a six-period timetable).
If the point of the contract really was to reinforce the school’s faith credentials, it needs to be backed up with changes to the curricula. Changes which could likely see it risk losing its state accreditation.
Such a device should be undesirable to any competent school board
The number one job of any board is to minimise risks to the organisation they supervise. For a school, these risks can include (among other things) negative scrutiny from regulators, health and safety of staff and students, and corruption.
This contract risks creating (or if one already exists, reinforcing) a toxic environment that fails to punish, or even encourages, bullying of queer students.
Schools have a duty of care over their students. If a student faces a health and safety risk at school, the school must mitigate it or face potential civil liability if something happens as a result.
Bullying is a severe risk to health and if a student feels, as a result of the school’s conduct, unable to come forward with bullying that creates risk for all parties involved. It creates a severe mental health risk to the student. If the bullying escalates to violence or, worse, suicide, the school can become liable if the failure to address the bullying can be plausibly linked to the school’s policies (such as, say, a threat of expulsion for revealing aspects of one’s life that could be relevant to the bullying).
The simple fact that so many people are queer leads me to believe that it is an inevitability that there will be an instance of a student at the Citipointe school who discovers they are gay, comes out or gets outed, gets bullied on account of their sexual orientation, and who will feel unable to report the bullying due to the contract’s clauses about gay students being expelled.
There has (per Seven News) already been a trans woman who has been pushed out of the school after coming out and beginning her transition. Last night, a teacher at the school resigned, having previously had her lesbian daughter go through the school asking her if she would go to hell.
What is the school to do in this situation? The contract is clear that gay people should be expelled as sinners who do not uphold the ethos. The school insists that they would not make a decision to enrol or expel solely on sexual orientation grounds. Of course they wouldn’t. For private schools relying on goodwill to enrol new students, it’s always something else.
If they expel the gay student, that sends the message that bullying queer people is acceptable. If they do not, and they choose not to do anything about the bullying because God wills it, they risk breaching their duty of care. If they do something about the bullying, they get accused by church leadership of breaching their own policies and risk losing support.
My admittedly atheist eyes cannot see why a school executive would willingly place themselves in such a dilemma. Solely from a governance standpoint, such a contract seems unwise.
The Liberals want to make this worse
The Liberals’ Religious Discrimination Bill, in its current form, limits the liability of religious schools’ breach of other discrimination laws in enrolment decisions where the school has a publicly available policy on such decisions.
This is rather ridiculous. As mentioned, there is little difference between religious and secular schools in the provision of education services. As such, a policy barring students from accessing such services based on immutable characteristics, such as transgender status or sexual identity, cannot be rationally sustained on the grounds of a “religious ethos”.
The Citipointe contract, foisted on to parents mere days before kids were due to go back for Term 1, seems suspiciously timed. The Bill which would make it lawful is before the federal parliament, parliament returns next week, and the Bill will almost certainly come up. It must surely be discussed after this controversy.
If the Bill passes in its current form, and religious school boards are further emboldened to discriminate, we will see a flood of schools making misguided admission policies in the name of “protecting the ethos”. We could possibly expect hundreds children being hounded from their schools, forcibly displaced from their friends and communities, losing the learning support of their favourite teachers, all to protect an ethos which likely only takes up one-sixth of a student’s day.
This is what the Liberal Party support. They are more abhorred by imaginary “gay clubs” in schools than by homophobic bullying at (and, it seems, by) schools.
There is no good outcome from the Bill as currently drafted. It will simply erase what little state-based protections vulnerable queer children have in these situations.
The arguments of the Liberals and their apologists frequently say things to the effect of “go somewhere else”. A point which is often missed is that the kids don’t decide what school they go to — parents do — and that queer kids are often terrified to come out to their parents. Especially so if their parents have religious beliefs that queer people are evil or malformed, as this school’s governing body believes.
The government have, so far, been entirely unresponsive to the concerns of queer people, state governments, and even religious bodies who have expressed near-unanimous concern that this Bill will encourage further discrimination.
If Citipointe thinks that this contract is already legal, imagine what sort of things they have planned for when the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed.