Religious schools under fire

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So-called “equality” advocates are showing their anti-freedom credentials with the latest complaint to be lodged against a Christian school for having the audacity to try and ensure that Christian teaching on marriage and family is expressed in its classrooms.

The Ballarat Christian College story

For those who missed the story, Rachel Colvin, a former teacher at Ballarat Christian College, is suing the school for discrimination.

Rachael Colvin is suing her former employer, Ballarat Christian College. The case has fundamental implications for whether religious schools will be allowed to require the support of employees for their official goals or whether official Christian mission statements are regarded as intrinsically discriminatory – and therefore illegal.

Ms Colvin worked at the school between 2008-11, and then came back as a part-time teacher in July 2016.  About a year before Ms Colvin returned, Ballarat Christian College had made the news because it sent an email to parents citing its opposition to same-sex marriage. So fierce was the backlash that the school was forced to close for a day while graffiti too vile for the students to see was cleaned from its buildings.

The Enterprise Agreement for staff at the school reasonably requires all employees “to possess and maintain a firm personal belief consistent with the Statement of Faith of the college”. Once the legal definition of marriage changed in December 2017, that Statement of Faith was updated to specify that marriage is between a man and a woman and that it is from this foundation that children should be conceived.  It’s hardly a surprising position for the school to have taken.

Teacher challenges school on mission

On 14 August 2018, Ms Colvin wrote to the school, formally objecting to the revised Statement of Faith.  According to the media reports, “the college indicated she was free to hold her views personally but was required to support and teach in accordance with the beliefs of the school.”  Again, it’s hardly a surprising – or unreasonable – position for the school to take when parents choose to send their children there to be educated in the context of the Christian faith.

The process to resolve the issue had not completed when, in February this year, Ms Colvin resigned.

The school heard nothing more until last week, when they received notice of a complaint filed with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal alleging discrimination on the basis of her political and religious beliefs.  In media reports, the school’s principal expressed surprise at the timing, given that it has now been some seven months since Ms Colvin resigned.

But I’m not surprised at all.

Activists back former teacher

The complaint is being backed by Equality Australia, the new name of Australian Marriage Equality, which is the organisation that brought us the Archbishop Julian Porteous case.

Equality Australia have been vocal opponents of the largely toothless Religious Discrimination Bill released by the government in recent weeks and want to see even the smallest of protections afforded to people of faith removed. This is despite their promises during the marriage campaign that no one would be affected by a change in the marriage law.

This case reveals that the introduction of same-sex marriage was just one step in a much longer campaign to force compliance on everyone, including churches and church-run institutions.  Ballarat Christian College will not be the last anti-discrimination case they bring.

This case reveals that the introduction of same-sex marriage was just one step in a much longer campaign to force compliance on everyone, including churches and church-run institutions …

While it seems common sense that a Christian school should be able to require that its staff do not undermine Christian teaching, it is not a given that Ballarat Christian College will be successful here. Religious schools currently receive an exemption from anti-discrimination laws when it comes to discrimination on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and other similar attributes. But Ms Colvin is not alleging discrimination on these grounds, but rather on her political and religious beliefs about these matters.

The difference is slight, but important, because there is no exemption in Victorian law or in the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill that allows a religious school to discriminate on the basis of political beliefs.  Even if the government’s purported protections for people of faith were passed, it would have no bearing on this matter.

Taking aim at legislation?

In terms of Ms Colvin’s complaint that she was discriminated against on the basis of religious belief, the allegation appears orchestrated to challenge the provisions of the Religious Discrimination Bill, which say that it is not discrimination for a religious school to engage in conduct “that may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion.”

Ms Colvin – a self-described “committed Christian” – told media that God is really about “loving others.”  If Colvin’s case proceeds, it will be for a tribunal or a court to decide which version of marriage is in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of Christianity, ie. which God the Victorian courts prefer to worship.  I’m not so sure I like the school’s chances, given where Victoria is currently headed.

Out in the open

But we can be grateful to Equality Australia for putting the matter on the table before the Religious Discrimination Bill is tabled in parliament because at least those asked to vote on it will have a current example of what can happen if they get this Bill wrong.

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