News Item

Religious belief deserves protection

By Vanessa Cheng and Mark Spencer

Steph Lentz, the former teacher at Covenant Christian School, is in many ways to be commended.

As she said in the pages of this paper earlier this week, “I knew my contract required me to inform the school if I changed my mind about a point of religious doctrine”, so she went and had a conversation with the Christian school where she worked.

So, the question remains: is it reasonable for Christian schools to employ staff who share their beliefs? We believe it is.

For our schools to provide an authentic Christian education they must be able to employ staff who share in the stated beliefs of the school.

We know there are different views about a range of matters within the Christian faith and our schools are transparent about what they believe. It is clearly outlined as a condition of employment and staff sign their agreement with the school’s Statement of Belief when they are employed.

We accept that people have the freedom to change their interpretation of what the Bible teaches around many things, including sexuality and marriage.

We know there are different views about a range of matters within the Christian faith.

But we do not believe that an individual teacher should expect to impose their changed beliefs about an important theological matter onto a Christian school that has been entirely consistent about their beliefs from the start.

In saying this, we acknowledge there is much pain and broken relationships when making these tough decisions. Our schools want to care for and support people with humility and love. It is our deep hope that people can find a community where they feel supported in their commonly held beliefs.

The school holds to the orthodox Biblical belief that sexual activity outside marriage between a man and woman is not acceptable conduct for a Christian teacher. Steph changed her mind about this and could no longer agree with that belief. That difference in opinion proved irreconcilable so Steph and the school parted ways.

She is now teaching in another school where her doctrines and beliefs align with those of the schools.

Her experience was not easy, but it was honourable, and exactly what you would expect where there is such a contradictory position between an employer and employee.

The school didn’t try to force Steph to change her beliefs or to live with the tension of teaching and acting in a way that was inconsistent with her beliefs. They took great care to act with kindness and integrity. As Steph herself has stated, the outcome of this difference in belief was not a surprise.

Unfortunately, this is not an outcome that activists like Equality Australia, who backed Steph’s story, can accept. Nor is there attention given to the deeper issues of how to deal with fundamentally different views and beliefs between people, where these cannot be reconciled.

They want beliefs that they find acceptable forced on Christian schools; they want our schools to change to conform to those of staff they support – never mind what other staff or parents who founded and supported the school over many years may hold to be true. Or indeed the stated, historical doctrinal basis of the institution.

Education is far more than merely the transmission of curriculum content. Research has shown that the community and relationships built around shared beliefs is a vital part of the educational process.

It truly does “take a village to raise a child” and all staff in Christian schools have a vital role to play in that process – and need to share a common set of beliefs.

The Australian Association of Christian Schools and Christian Schools Australia, the peak bodies for Christian schools, look forward to the Morrison government following through on its election commitment to introduce a religious discrimination bill that will affirm that it is lawful for Christian schools to continue providing authentic faith-based education by employing staff who support and model the beliefs of the school.

We also look forward to the opposition’s support for such a Bill, reflecting their National Platform which recognises the need to protect religious freedom.

Vanessa Cheng is executive officer of Australian Association of Christian Schools and Mark Spencer is director of public policy, Christian Schools Australia.

This article was published as an opinion piece in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August 2021.

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