Almost 13 years after the Howard government wrote the denial of same-sex couples’ rights into law, parliament appears to have completed it’s slow reluctant crawl to passing marriage equality .

It’s been an arduous journey, particularly in the last few months as the matter was put to the public. A recurring argument of those opposing the change was that the re-definition of marriage would lead to other consequences, particularly around schooling.

Who is concerned about gay marriage affecting school education?

The Australian Christian Lobby’s first ad advocating a No vote, ominously scored, featured concerned mums explicitly linked marriage equality to the safe schools program. Vermilion eccentric and Member for Kennedy Bob Katter took time out from pursuing the epidemic of North Queensland croc attacks to add the horror story of compulsory dress wearing for boys to the debate of Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s marriage equality bill overnight. And yesterday, The Australian ran a front page story on a “warning” from Scots College principal Dr Ian Lambert that faith-based schools such as his faced the risk of de-registration if the bill was allowed to pass unamended. He wrote of these concerns to Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie. 

“I was prompted to write to Andrew Hastie when parents and Old Boys asked me what this legislation will mean for our College and other schools like ours,” Lambert told Crikey. “The simple answer is that I do not know and there appears to be no way to find out.”

What does the letter from the Scots College principal claim?

The letter raises a lot of questions,  including whether school registration and funding be conditional upon compliance to legislation. However, the letter describes the bill as though its provisions are entirely opaque, rather than being publicly available and actively analysed in the media, nor does it point to any exact examples of what non compliance with marriage equality would look like for a school.

Lambert said it was prudent to seek clarity on whether faith-based schools across Australia “will be able to operate in 2018 in the same way they have operated in 2017”.

“Is the government able to guarantee that the religious protections currently in place for all faith-based schools remain intact?” 

What’s the risk of schools being de-registered or in any way affected?

Law lecturer at Southern Cross University Dr Cristy Clark told Crikey that the Sex Discrimination Act provides shielding for religious institutions from claims of discrimination around firing or refusing to hire someone based on their sexual orientation, their gender identity or their marriage status. 

“There’s not an expansive protection as it relates to teaching, primarily because there’s nothing particular in relation to anti discrimination law that relates to teaching —  discrimination law is really about hiring and firing, and separately issues of harassment.”

These exemptions for religious institutions were in evidence in late November, when relief teacher Craig Campbell was let go by South Coast Baptist College in Western Australia after revealing he was in a same sex relationship. Campbell would have no means of redress. 

What’s the impact on curriculum?

Clark, who has a doctorate in human rights law, said discrimination law had no impact on curriculum, and Smith’s bill doesn’t interact with existing religious exemptions in any way.

“All it does it carve out some more exemptions for certain kinds of celebrants and chaplains, so that they can’t be forced to participate in a ceremony that goes against their religious convictions, and it also provides exemptions for religious facilities — they can’t be forced to hire them out for same sex marriage ceremonies,” she said.

“So the argument that this is in someway going to affect what schools can teach regarding the definition of marriage, the first question you have to ask is to what extent are your educational practices centred around the definition of marriage — which I’d argue is pretty limited in most schools.

Yes, they could no longer say that the legal definition of marriage corresponds with they way they would prefer it was defined, but there’s nothing that would stop them saying “this is how our religion defines marriage’.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey