The Presbyterian Church of Australia, which oversees two of Victoria’s most elite private schools, has told a review of Australia’s discrimination laws it should be able to refuse students who have premarital sex or are gay from becoming school captains.
In a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), the church group said these students “would not be able to give appropriate Christian leadership in a Christian school which requires modelling Christian living”.
The Victorian wing of the Presbyterian Church of Australia operates five schools in the state, including Presbyterian Ladies’ College (PLC) and Scotch College, both in Melbourne’s east.
In a letter to parents on Friday, Scotch College chairman Alex Sloan said during times of “unprecedented change”, organisations’ beliefs were often tested.
“Certainly education is far from immune to this scrutiny, and it is timely for the Scotch community to take stock.”
He said the school would continue to reflect values of respect, tolerance and inclusion.
“As the times potentially become more turbulent, the more important it is to assess that our responses are consistent with the ethos and values that have served us so well to date, while keeping pace with our evolving world.”
PLC chairman Mark Chew said in a letter to the school community that “contrary to what has been portrayed in the media”, the school maintained its priority of providing a safe and inclusive environment for all within its community, “which reflects the imprint of God’s grace for all students and staff”.
“Consequently, every student is nurtured and encouraged to serve and take on positions of leadership without discrimination as to where they are on their personal journey,” he wrote.
Islamic, Jewish, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Seventh-Day Adventist and Uniting Church groups also made submissions to the inquiry, which the federal government established to review Australia’s religious exemptions for schools in its first formal step toward drafting religious discrimination laws.
The Presbyterian Church’s rejection of LGBTQ school captains was made in response to an example from the commission’s consultation paper, which proposes banning religious schools from discrimination against students based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, or pregnancy. The church also called for the right to consider the former three factors when selecting school staff.
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles told Channel Nine on Friday the government was trying to ensure religious Australians were protected, but was uncomfortable a church group wanted to exclude gay students or those having premarital sex from school captaincy.
“Leadership and the qualities of leadership are not a function of people’s sexual orientation, and we need to make sure we have the widest pool of people for leadership positions across our society – and that should apply here as well,” Marles said.
“It’s really important that we do not see – as we walk down this road – discrimination against children.”
The Presbyterian Church of Victoria also made a separate submission to the review and did not explicitly object to LGBTQ students becoming school captains, but rejected the review’s proposal barring discrimination against gay students. In addition to PLC and Scotch, the church is also linked to Belgrave Heights Christian School, St Andrews Christian College in Wantirna South, and King’s College in Warrnambool.
Catholic Education Commission of Victoria executive director Jim Miles said a parent’s right to choose a school that reflected their values and beliefs was at the heart of the debate.
‘Leadership and the qualities of leadership are not a function of people’s sexual orientation.’
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles
“These values and beliefs are not ‘add-ons’. They permeate all dimensions of the Catholic school community, supporting young people in their spiritual development and fostering a contribution to society,” Miles said.
“Catholic schools should have the ability to employ and teach according to their faith, while operating with deep care and respect for all students and staff, nurturing and supporting them on their life journeys.”
Victorian Student Representative Council member Oak, who is 15, a student and a proud member of the LGBTQ community, said schools should be safe spaces for every child, regardless of sexual orientation, relationship status or gender identity.
“Education should be considered a basic human right, so why should these factors be a barrier to access for students?” he said.
He said there were diverse people within religions, which is why religious schools shouldn’t have exemptions, adding it could be a “scary thing to hear” that students could be discriminated against in a space that’s supposed to be supportive.
“It’s okay to be yourself. Take pride in yourself and stay safe.”
Legal director at Equality Australia, Ghassan Kassisieh, said students shouldn’t be stripped of leadership opportunities for being LGBTQ, because it could “set them back for life”.
In terms of the church’s broader submission, Kassisieh said states like Victoria – where religious schools can hire people of the same faith when the job requires it, but cannot discriminate based on a candidate’s sexuality or gender – had struck the balance for “fair and reasonable laws”.
The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) said in its submission that Islamic schools should be able to teach students what Islam teaches on gender identity and sexual orientation “without reservation”, and take action against both staff and students if their conduct is “at conflict” with these teachings.
“This does not mean that schools operate indifferently to the psychological wellbeing of staff and students. It is essential that students are not exposed to avoidable harms at school,” the submission reads.
The ICV says preferencing staff based on religion in the hiring process, as well as terminating staff who undermine the “ethos” of the school, should be allowed.
It argues Islamic schools should be able to act against a staff member who supports an LGBTQ student or attends a Pride rally, because it undermines a school’s religious ethos.
In its submission, Anglican Schools Australia said it broadly supported the ALRC’s proposals, believing that religious educational institutions should not be allowed to discriminate against current or prospective students.
But it wanted more clarity on whether preferencing staff on religious grounds should be allowed, as in some cases it could be a genuine requirement of the role.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2021, one-third of students and almost two in five staff members were enrolled or employed in non-government schools, most of which are religiously affiliated as part of the Catholic or independent school system.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates the largest Protestant education system in the world. With more than 16,000 students in primary and secondary education across Australia, it argues the inability to discriminate against students based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationships status, or pregnancy would prevent their “faith community from acting authentically”, and would be a restriction on the freedom to practice their religion.
The church also wants to be able to preference staff based on their religion when hiring, arguing that without these measures it would “make it impossible to operate Seventh-day Adventist schools authentically in conformity to our faith”.
Uniting Church Australia, which represents 48 schools across the country with 12 of them in Victoria, including Geelong College, Wesley College and Ballarat Clarendon College, is largely happy with the ALRC’s proposal and says students should not be discriminated against, but notes that discrimination against prospective students on the basis of their sex for single-sex schools is still possible.
The Australian Council of Jewish Schools, representing 18 independent Jewish schools with about 10,000 students, holds varied views on the ALRC’s proposal. Some schools have stated they would need to close if they weren’t allowed to perform student-based gender-specific activities, preference same-gender teachers, have enrolment preferencing and religious practices and education.
“It is fundamental to Judaism … that each school maintain the ability to preserve the character of their school by the preferencing and or restricting enrolment of students as per their criteria. We ask the commission to consider an exemption specifically on this matter,” it says.
Lutheran Education Australia, which represents 78 schools across the country and more than 42,000 students, does not seek the right to discriminate on the basis of a protected attribute, but to “be able to employ staff who share or are willing to uphold the ethos of the religious education institution”.
The Independent Education Union (IEU) said a minority of intolerant employers had been able to bully and dismiss hundreds of the union’s members for decades.
“This discriminatory conduct included the dismissal of LGBTQ members, those who were living apart from their partners, members who used non-approved methods of IVF and others who simply sought a dialogue with their church over its religious teachings and moral values,” the union said in a statement.
“The IEU is concerned about allowing religious schools to preference staff of their own religion as well as the ALRC’s suggestion to create new laws which would allow employers to discipline and dismiss employees who ‘actively undermine the ethos of the [religious educational] institution’.”
Equality Australia cited the example of Ballarat woman Rachel Colvin, a committed Christian and mother of three married to a man, who was dismissed in 2019 from a non-denominational Christian school because she refused to agree to and abide by a statement of faith that marriage “can only be between a male and a female”.
Colvin offered to teach in accordance with the schools’ beliefs but was still forced to resign. The matter went to VCAT and was settled in 2020.
With Ashleigh McMillan
If you or someone you know needs support contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or Switchboard on 1800 184 527.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.