Church launches bid for right to sideline gay students

Samantha Lock and Dominic Giannini |

The Law Reform Commission is reviewing how anti-discrimination laws apply to religious schools.
The Law Reform Commission is reviewing how anti-discrimination laws apply to religious schools.

A church bid to ban students from senior school roles based on their sexual activity or preferences has drawn widespread criticism.

In a submission to a review of anti-discrimination laws, the Presbyterian Church of Australia argued for the right to exclude students from leadership positions, such as school captain, if they were having pre-marital sex or in a same-sex relationship.

“They would not be able to give appropriate Christian leadership in a Christian school which requires modelling Christian living,” the church said in its submission.

The national body is a federation of state churches that run more than 20 schools and preschools including the prestigious Sydney Presbyterian Ladies’ College and Melbourne’s Scotch College.

The NSW Council of Civil Liberties said the proposal seemed punitive and would have a chilling effect on student morale.

“We know that queer kids exist in these schools (and) it’s sending a clear message that they’re not welcome,” president Josh Pallas told AAP.

“We know that queer kids are more susceptible to mental health issues so it’s really quite damaging and comes in the context of heightened fears for their safety.”

National advocacy group Just Equal Australia said faith-based schools were predominantly taxpayer-funded and so they “have a duty to represent the values of the majority of Australians”.

Equality Australia said no child should be left behind or held back because of their sexuality or gender identity and doing so could have devastating impacts on their grades, development and welfare.

“Denying them opportunities to thrive at school can have lifelong consequences,” legal director Ghassan Kassisieh told AAP.

“We need laws that work for today, not the 1950s.”

Brisbane Greens MP Stephen Bates questioned how schools would ascertain a student’s sexual relations or sexuality “without conducting inappropriate and significant investigations”.

“It’s a flagrant overreach and an invasion of privacy,” he said.

Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles said while the government respected the views of people of faith, discriminating against children made him uncomfortable.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, an alum of Jesuit college St Ignatius’ College Riverview, said schools should be allowed to publicly put forward their views.

“It’s a messy one. I just think that parents have a right to say, ‘I had these values and I want the school to have these values because that’s why I’m putting my hands in my pocket to pay money’,” he told Sky News.

“If you go to a public school, and there are great public schools, they won’t ask you those questions. There are always alternatives.”

Scotch College Melbourne on Friday did not directly address the church’s concerns but emphasised its staff’s “constant and invigorating goal” was using contemporary ways to reinforce its ethos and set of values, while not losing sight of the college’s traditions.

“Through teaching based on a Christian ethos and principles, our school aspires to reflect a community that embraces boys from families of all faiths, backgrounds and countries,” Scotch College Council chair Alex Sloan said.

The Presbyterian Church has more than 500 congregations across Australia and runs more than 20 schools and preschools, including prestigious private schools in Sydney and Melbourne.

Its submission was made to an Australian Law Reform Commission review of how federal anti-discrimination laws apply to religious schools.

The commission’s final report will be handed to the attorney-general on Thursday.

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