The right to ex­pel gay chil­dren from school isn't about free­dom; it's about cru­elty

The Guardian Australia - - Politics - David Marr

Let’s face it: throw­ing kids out of school for be­ing gay is dis­gust­ing. Not for a long, long time has such an idea been re­spectable in this coun­try. But in 2018 Philip Rud­dock’s re­li­gious free­dom re­view has kept it on the ta­ble.

This isn’t about free­dom. It’s cru­elty. Rud­dock’s team should have knocked it on the head in­stead of rec­om­mend­ing a few pro­tec­tions. And politi­cians call­ing, pa­thet­i­cally, for no fresh laws al­low­ing faith schools to ex­pel gay kids should be de­mand­ing the prac­tice ends right now ev­ery­where in Aus­tralia.

Old hymns tell us God moves in mys­te­ri­ous ways. The hul­la­baloo caused by Wed­nes­day’s re­ports of Rud­dock’s find­ings has been an un­am­bigu­ously good thing.

Who cared be­fore yes­ter­day that the law al­ready al­lowed gay kids to be hu­mil­i­ated in this way?

Crit­ics of church power have been bang­ing on about this for decades with near zero trac­tion. Then sud­denly the prime min­is­ter was spread­ing the word. “That is the ex­ist­ing law,” de­clared Scott Mor­ri­son, not once but half a dozen times at a doorstop on the New South Wales cen­tral coast.

And was he com­fort­able with gay and les­bian chil­dren be­ing re­jected by schools?

“We’re not propos­ing to change that law to take away that ex­ist­ing ar­range­ment that ex­ists.”

So ScoMo the Chris­tian is all for putting the boot into gay kids. That’s use­ful to know, too.

But he’s right: most states and ter­ri­to­ries – all but Queens­lan­dand Tas­ma­nia – let church schools get rid of gay and les­bian kids just for be­ing who they are.

In NSW it’s ab­so­lutely open slather. There’s no re­li­gious test. There’s no test of any kind. Out they can go. No ques­tions asked.

The law ap­plies in NSW as much to a com­mer­cial col­lege teach­ing panel beat­ing as Catholic boys board­ing schools. Think of it as pu­rity in­sur­ance.

La­bor hero Neville Wran made this law as he faced down the churches to de­crim­i­nalise ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in NSW in the 1980s. It’s barely been de­bated. It’s a lit­tle pro­vi­sion that sits there as con­ces­sion to Chris­tian ide­o­logues who hate ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. No premier since has been will­ing to touch it.

“It’s an ugly fact that the NSW par­lia­ment has given the green light to ac­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion by pri­vate schools for decades, and lets them use pub­lic money to do it,” Greens MP David Shoe­bridge told Guardian Aus­tralia.

“What makes that of­fen­sive po­si­tion even worse is that MPs haven’t even had the courage to ex­plain why pri­vate schools need the ‘right’ to ex­pel gay stu­dents or sack LGBTI teach­ers. There has never been even a ba­sic at­tempt to bal­ance out com­pet­ing in­ter­ests of so-called re­li­gious free­doms and the right to be free from dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

Bust­ing gay kids in this way is a pro­foundly dis­taste­ful idea for sec­u­lar Aus­tralians. It’s also too grim for most of the faith­ful in the pews. But as usual, politi­cians aren’t lis­ten­ing to them, only their lead­ers. Pol­i­tics is sup­posed to be a num­bers game, but when re­li­gion comes into the pic­ture, politi­cians lose

the power to count.

And de­spite what arch­bish­ops preach about the sins of Sodom, ex­pelling gay kids is a prac­tice too grim for most Catholic and Angli­can schools.

Do Catholic schools in NSW ex­pel kids for be­ing gay, the Guardian asked spokes­woman Anita Quigley. “No.” Dr Paul Hine, prin­ci­pal of St Ig­natius Col­lege Riverview added: “My per­sonal view is that schools should be places of tol­er­ance and in­clu­sion.”

The Guardian put the same ques­tion to Rus­sell Power, spokesman for the hard­line anti-gay Angli­can dio­cese of Syd­ney, and got the same blunt re­sponse. “No.”

I checked with Tim­o­thy Wright, head­mas­ter of my old Angli­can school in Syd­ney if he ex­pels boys for be­ing gay? “No. Shore does not.”

So why do church lead­ers in­sist on this “free­dom” when so many of their schools want noth­ing to do with it? It’s an old game. Re­li­gious lead­ers want laws that show be­liev­ers the state backs their faith. Even laws that be­come too aw­ful over time to en­force set a Godly ex­am­ple.

That was the old ar­gu­ment against de­crim­i­nal­is­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and it’s the ar­gu­ment now of men at the top of the churches for hang­ing on to this relic of old ha­treds: the right to ex­pel gay kids. It’s use­ful pro­pa­ganda: a dec­la­ra­tion of sin on the statute books.

It’s not much to hold onto but the faiths are hold­ing on hard – with the help of Rud­dock’s crew, the prime min­is­ter and lead­ers of all the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

La­bor is show­ing no courage here. It never has. How kids might be mashed up in the process hardly mat­ters.

Mind you, they know it’s too dis­taste­ful to de­fend in plain speech. Few but the most ex­treme sub­mis­sions re­ceived by Rud­dock de­mand in clear terms the “free­dom” to ex­pel gay school chil­dren. The heavy­weight sub­mis­sions he re­ceived call­ing for this were care­fully coded.

“We have not sought con­ces­sions to dis­crim­i­nate against stu­dents or teach­ers based on their sex­u­al­ity, gen­der iden­tity or re­la­tion­ship sta­tus,” de­clared Arch­bishop Mark Co­leridge in the uproar over Rud­dock’s rec­om­men­da­tions.

“Once em­ployed or en­rolled, peo­ple within a Catholic school com­mu­nity are ex­pected to ad­here to the school’s mis­sion and val­ues.”

The key is “mis­sion and val­ues”: be­ing gay isn’t ad­her­ing to them whether you’re a gay teacher or a gay stu­dent. This for­mula is ex­tremely clever: it shel­ters the church, doesn’t alarm par­ents, al­lows Catholic schools to of­fer if they wish – and most do – pas­toral care to teenagers dis­cov­er­ing their sex­u­al­ity, while at the same time keep­ing hard­line the­olo­gians happy by not giv­ing of­fi­cial com­fort to the par­tic­u­larly aw­ful sin of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

The churches ask: what’s all the fuss about? This is sim­ply a for­mal­ity. Ex­pul­sions are cer­tainly ex­tremely rare.But the threat is al­ways there and so, some­times, is the re­al­ity.

“Faith com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing Chris­tian schools, must be able to take ac­tion that sep­a­rates in­di­vid­u­als from that com­mu­nity when their ac­tions un­der­mine the com­mu­nity,” Chris­tian Schools Aus­tralia told the Rud­dock re­view. More than most faith lobby groups, CSA is hon­est about the fate of gay kids in their low-fee schools: ex­pul­sion when re­quired.

“This op­tion re­mains a nec­es­sary re­sponse to sit­u­a­tions de­ter­mined by a com­mu­nity to be a threat to that com­mu­nity.”

Mark Spencer, head of pol­icy, ex­plained the CSA ap­proach: “We say to stu­dents who are same-sex at­tracted: ‘We be­lieve that’s not God’s best plan for you and here’s why.’”

So what is God’s plan for gay kids? “It’s not about en­dors­ing or en­cour­ag­ing it.” The trou­ble comes if they don’t ac­cept God’s plan.

Not al­ways. “It de­pends how they be­have. We want the right to ex­pel stu­dents whose be­hav­iour or con­duct un­der­mines the school.” What sort of con­duct would that be? “It’s hard to give ex­am­ples.” Could he try? Spencer of­fered: an “of­fen­sive re­sponse” to teach­ers ex­plain­ing God’s plan plus “shar­ing so­cial me­dia posts and en­cour­ag­ing other stu­dents to go to events with them”.

So the kid goes? “It is very rare but it has hap­pened,” said Spencer. “The best in­ter­ests of the child are served by the child go­ing else­where.”

Rather than end this prac­tice Rud­dock’s team de­cided – I un­der­stand unan­i­mously – to call for clar­ity. Faith schools must tell par­ents, up front, that their chil­dren may be ex­pelled. One of sev­eral head­mas­ters con­sulted by the Guardian said: who would do that to en­rol­ments?

That wouldn’t trou­ble Chris­tian Schools Aus­tralia but it threatens a God almighty ruckus in­side the Angli­can and Catholic churches with em­bar­rassed schools fac­ing hard­line the­olo­gians de­mand­ing they make an open com­mit­ment to ex­pul­sions. QCs may al­ready be draft­ing the weasel words.

The sec­ond de­mand of the Rud­dock re­view is that schools must re­gard the best in­ter­ests of the child as “the pri­mary con­sid­er­a­tion of its con­duct”. Again that’s not go­ing to worry Chris­tian Schools Aus­tralia, but the Rud­dock team is qui­etly con­fi­dent the prospect of lit­i­ga­tion over the best in­ter­ests of gay pupils will stay the hand of schools keen to ex­pel them.

Per­haps. But the pain for the child … Not rec­om­mended is the Bri­tish ap­proach. It’s sim­ple. It works. When faiths take pub­lic money to run schools and hos­pi­tals in the UK they have to play by sec­u­lar rules. The choice is stark: faith or funds. At this point, the cen­tral Chris­tian need for the right to sack gay staff and ex­pel gay kids … evap­o­rates.

Fear of this out­come ex­plains the coded ref­er­ences in so many sub­mis­sions to Rud­dock call­ing for fresh pro­tec­tions so that the faith­ful never suf­fer “fi­nan­cial con­se­quences” for liv­ing by their be­liefs. As Chris­tian Schools Aus­tralia put it with char­ac­ter­is­tic clar­ity: “It is es­sen­tial that pro­tec­tions be pro­vided shield­ing con­tin­ued ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing.”

The uproar of the last few days will surely com­pel the gov­ern­ment to re­lease the full Rud­dock re­port and the na­tion can, at last, have a de­bate about its rec­om­men­da­tions.

For the mo­ment we are be­ing told how­ever dis­taste­ful we find the sight of faiths ha­rass­ing gay pupils – and gay teach­ers – tax­pay­ers are ex­pected to keep foot­ing the bill.

That’s what counts in the end. That’s free­dom.

Com­ments on this thread are pre­mod­er­ated

When faiths take pub­lic money to run schools and hos­pi­tals in the UK they have to play by sec­u­lar rules. The choice is stark: faith or funds

Pho­to­graph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The Rud­dock re­view into re­li­gious free­dom has been a good thing: who cared be­fore yes­ter­day that the law al­lowed gay chil­dren to be ex­pelledfrom schools?

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