Equality - The schools that can legally expel gay students

Row breaks out over exemptions for Australian private schools

Stephen Exley

In most parts of the developed world, a school expelling a student on the grounds of sexuality would become the subject of protests, a court case and, in all likelihood, a national scandal.

But in one Australian state, a Catholic school leader has defended the institutions' ability to expel gay students in the name of "freedom of religion", in order to "protect and preserve" parents' right to educate their children in line with their religious beliefs.

The row broke out after an MP in New South Wales (NSW) announced a campaign to overturn the controversial law.

Although it is illegal for state schools in NSW to refuse admission to a student or expel them for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, historical exemptions to the state's anti-discrimination legislation mean the same rules do not apply to private schools and colleges.

Now NSW Legislative Assembly member Alex Greenwich (pictured, left) is planning to introduce a bill that would require schools in the private sector - including Christian schools - to comply with the legislation.

"Currently, in NSW, students can cruelly be expelled for being gay," said Mr Greenwich, an independent politician and gay rights campaigner. "This is wrong and my bill will end this. The threat of expulsion for being who you are has a hugely negative impact on vulnerable LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex) high school students.

"This is a major issue for the inner city. High school spots are already extremely limited and the growing numbers of LGBTI families in Sydney don't need further restrictions placed on their schooling options."

The NSW Catholic Education Commission and the Sydney Anglican Schools Corporation have voiced opposition to Mr Greenwich's proposals. Both organisations told TES that they were unaware of any recent examples of gay students being expelled. But Ian Baker, acting executive director of the commission, said it would be reasonable for a Catholic school to expel "a student who intentionally set out to promote values and lifestyles manifestly inconsistent with Catholic teaching and values".

"It is no surprise that the Catholic Church teaches that sexual activity should be reserved to marriage between a man and a woman," he said. "This is one of the many important values that parents expect to be taught to their children when they choose a Catholic school."

Mr Baker insisted that exemptions for private schools in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act are necessary "to protect and preserve the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their conscientiously held religious beliefs". Changing the law, he added, would compromise the identity of religious schools and leave "freedom of religion, in the context of schooling, unrecognised and unprotected under NSW law".

Private schools in the state are also exempt from other elements of the Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits state schools from discriminating against students because of their sex, age or on grounds of disability.

But not all religious groups are opposed to the plans: the Australian Council of Jewish Schools told The Sydney Morning Herald that it did not envisage any "practical limitation" for schools resulting from a change in the law.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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