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Two Illawarra principals are among signatories to a controversial letter that calls on federal MPs to uphold legal exemptions that make it possible for them to dismiss gay teachers.
The letter was signed by heads of 34 NSW Anglican schools, including several prestigious Sydney schools, Shellharbour Anglican College and The Illawarra Grammar School (TIGS).
The move has drawn anger from some past and present students of the Illawarra schools, including a recent TIGS house captain who has written an open letter condemning principal Judi Nealy’s stance as a “targeted attack”.
The principals’ letter follows the introduction of a bill to stop discrimination (in the form of an exemption to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984) against gay students. The government is still considering whether to end the exemptions for teachers.
The principals contend faith-based schools should have a right to employ staff who support their “values, ethos and mission”.
“It is overly simplistic to state that a teacher merely delivers academic content in the classroom,” they write.
“This ignores the powerful mentor and exemplar role all teachers play … It is not appropriate, for example, for a teacher to undermine or denigrate the beliefs and teachings of an employing school … Until such time as religious freedom is codified in legislation, the exemptions should remain.”
Henry Hulme, an openly gay student who graduated from TIGS in 2014 after serving as captain of Aranda House, on Thursday wrote an open letter addressed to Mrs Nealy, out of concern about the signings.
“After I came out as gay, I had a consultation with a senior member of staff,” he wrote. “I talked about my experience, about how I felt that I didn’t receive a great deal of institutional support. I was promised at the time that an effort would be made to make things better for students like me. It would be naive to think that the current pupils of your schools are not negatively affected by the signing of this letter. Regardless of how it may be spun, I have heard from some of them, and it has been seen as a targeted attack.”
Mrs Nealy declined to be interviewed by the Mercury but provided a written statement.
“Anglican Heads of Schools recently wrote to Federal Parliamentarians asking MPs to preserve the right of faith based schools to continue to employ staff who are supportive of our ethos,” she said.
“Misrepresentations of the letter have raised unnecessary concern. I would like to reassure the community that the tenure of staff or the enrolment of students at TIGS will not be threatened because of their sexuality. TIGS has a long history of care for students and staff which stems from its basis in Christian faith.”
In November last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed an expert panel to review religious protections in Australia.
The Morrison government claims the resulting, leaked recommendations – delivered in May – have been misreported as government backing for the expulsion of gay students.
Shellharbour Anglican College principal Tony Cummings said he had been shocked by this reporting, and believed it to be the result of “an agenda much bigger than the few items that have been chosen to be the focal point”.
“The whole discussion about religious freedom seems to have been narrowed down to some very polarising opinions about schools’ desire to be able to expel gay students, and I know of no head who holds that opinion, and I know of no head who would expel a gay student,” he said.
“As long as I’ve been head of a school, there have been sections of the community who have been strongly opposed to funding for independent schools.
“I see what’s happening at the moment as an effort to bolster that view, and to paint us as doing things that we should not and then effectively to say, ‘that’s why they shouldn’t receive government funding’.”
Speaking to the Mercury, Mr Hulme said he was aware of gay teachers at his former school, who appeared to go about their employment without issue.
He questions then why principals would pursue “the explicit power to discriminate”.
“Unless you want to utilise the ability to discriminate, I’m not sure why you would want the right to discriminate enshrined in legislation,” he said.
Read an open letter to all members of Parliament of Australia from heads of Anglican schools
As Principals and Heads of Anglican Schools in Greater Sydney and the Illawarra we write this public letter to all members of Parliament of Australia.
There has been quite some discussion recently about the rights of faith-based schools and their current exemptions under federal anti-discrimination legislation. The debate has been polemicised as the right to expel gay students, with little evidence that this occurs, and the right to dismiss gay staff members, again with little evidence that this occurs.
By and large across faith-based schools, the issue at hand is the right to employ staff who support the ethos of the school. Some schools require evidence of an active faith that is consistent with the philosophy and ethos of the school. In other schools, there is a preference for employment of active adherents of the faith, but other staff, who may not personally identify with the faith, are still expected to support the overarching mission and ethos of the school. This is not inconsistent with the practice of most employers and their corporate goals, let alone political parties. It is overly simplistic to state that a teacher merely delvers academic content in the classroom. This ignores the powerful mentor and exemplar role all teachers play, and are expected to play, in the education of young people. Therefore, it is essential that a teacher supports the values, ethos and mission of the school as much as he or she can. It is not appropriate, for example, for a teacher to undermine or denigrate the beliefs and teachings of an employing school. This is a reasonable expectation not only of the employing school but also of many parents and families who have chosen the school for their children's education.
There is no effective protection under Australian law that guarantees religious freedom for both belief and action. This is strange given that it is enshrined in the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has formally ratified. The current exemptions, however clumsy, in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 are really the only significant legal protections available to school to maintain their ethos and values with regards to core issues of faith. A more general positive right would be far better, but until such time as religious freedom is codified in legislation, the exemptions should remain.
Read the signatories of heads of schools here.
Read an open letter to TIGS principal Judith Nearly from former house captain Henry Hulme
Dear Judith Nealy,
I write to you as a former pupil regarding an open letter you signed dated 25 October. It was addressed to government indicating support of a right for schools to dismiss staff on the grounds that they do not align with one’s institution’s faith. This has been widely and, I believe, correctly interpreted as a right to discriminate against LGBTQI+ teachers. I put it to you that such legislation would not be used against atheist teachers; after all, if things haven’t changed that much, that would be a not insignificant portion of the staff. Given the context in which this legislation came about (that is, the aftermath of the postal vote on marriage equality), I think people are right to be concerned that it is aimed at discriminating against LGBTQI+ teachers.
The fact is, the legislation you propose would have the consequence, intended or not, of allowing schools to bar LGBTQI+ individuals from becoming teachers if their sexual and/or gender identity itself is seen as at odds with the values of the school. To grant this power would be to grant the explicit power to discriminate. Imagine a religious school whose faith had them believe that the colour of people’s skin made them at odds with the school’s value system. Would you think in such a situation it would be acceptable for such a school to ban black staff members on religious grounds? Do you think anyone should have this right?
After I came out as gay, I had a consultation with a senior member of staff. I talked about my experience, about how I felt that I didn’t receive a great deal of institutional support. I was promised at the time that an effort would be made to make things better for students like me. It would be naïve to think that the current pupils of your school are not negatively affected by the signing of this letter. Regardless of how it may be spun, I have heard from some of them, and it has been seen as a targeted attack. To them, I would say stand strong, and that this too shall pass. Ms Nealy, will you honour the promise made to me?
The argument is clear. We live in a pluralist society where we should be exposed to a variety of value systems. I’m personally very grateful for the Christian values I was taught at school. I still find myself appealing to the ethics taught to me in many of my high school classes. I was taught within this framework without the school having a right to discriminate against my teachers. I had Gay teachers. I wouldn’t change the schooling I was so blessed to receive for all the money in the world.
Finally, I want to say thank you to this school. It taught me many things in my time. I learnt the values of compassion, of kindness, of loving thy neighbour. It taught me when it is right to turn the other cheek and when it is right to stand up for what you believe. It taught me the nuances of gender; that we ought not be restricted by the sex we are born with or the labels we are given. It taught me that it’s okay to be gay and supported me when I came out. It taught me all of these things within a Christian framework.
It taught them because they were right.
Perhaps most importantly, it taught me how to write a letter. I trust this one finds you well.
Henry Hulme, graduate of the year 2014, former Captain of Aranda House