November 17, 2018

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In Some Australian Schools, Teachers Can Be Fired for Being Gay

In Some Australian Schools, Teachers Can Be Fired for Being Gay
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Hugo Walker was 52 years old when he came out as gay to his family and his bosses at the private Christian school where he worked.

It was July 2013, and Mr. Walker had been a teacher at the school in Canberra, Australia’s capital, for nearly 14 years. He taught science and Japanese. He had an impeccable record. But he tendered his resignation for that September, the end of the school term.

If he had not, the principal could have fired him — legally. “He was furious,” Mr. Walker said of the principal’s response to his coming out. “It was probably the most stressful three months of my life.”

In religious schools around Australia, stories like Mr. Walker’s are not uncommon. Teachers and other employees have been fired or forced to resign after revealing that they are gay, marrying their same-sex partners or transitioning to a different gender.

Gay students have also been threatened with expulsion, which is allowable under federal law.

While some protections exist for teachers and students on the state level, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 makes it lawful for private religious schools to discriminate against teachers and students at religious schools because of their sexuality or gender.

Last week, that act was cast into the spotlight when a leaked “religious freedom” report, commissioned by conservative members of Parliament, recommended the exemptions protecting schools that wish to discriminate against teachers and students be maintained on a national level.

In response to a public backlash over the report, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Saturday that new laws would be introduced to protect gay or transgender students from expulsion. But he made no similar promise to protect gay teachers from discrimination in religious schools, even though those institutions receive billions of dollars in federal aid each year.

Same-sex marriage was only legalized in Australia last year, and gay rights activists warn that discrimination remains rife in the Australian workplace and that funding private schools with public funds amounts to a government endorsement of discrimination.

“When you take a bad law and replicate it at a national level, you’re giving it new legitimacy,” said Rodney Croome, a rights activist and the former director of Australian Marriage Equality.

But proponents of the legislation said that it is reasonable for parents who send their children to parochial schools to expect teachers and administrators to adhere to certain religious values.

“If a parent sends their child to a school and they are paying for that school then they expect that school in their leadership, in their teaching faculty, to uphold the values that they believe in,” Andrew Broad, the assistant minister to the deputy prime minister, told the local news media on Monday.

Mr. Broad is a member of the National Party, part of the right-leaning coalition government.

As in the United States, so-called religious freedom laws, which allow for individuals and institutions to practice discrimination lest they violate personal religious beliefs, have been advanced in recent years by conservative politicians.

Parliament’s report on religious freedom, written less than a year after Australia legalized same-sex marriage, was leaked weeks after a contentious shake-up in the leadership of the country’s governing coalition and just days ahead of a critical by-election that could upset the coalition’s grip on power.

While Mr. Walker now has a job teaching at a public school, other teachers have been less fortunate. In December, Genevieve Doyle revealed she was transgender and soon after was fired from her job at a Catholic school in New South Wales.

“I requested that they support me to transition in the classroom,” Ms. Doyle said, recalling her conversation with the school’s administrators. “I’ve got five dependents.”

Months later, Ms. Doyle is still looking for a job.

While some states currently protect students against discrimination, Tasmania is the only state in which it is illegal to discriminate against a teacher based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Despite the government panel’s recommendations, 74 percent of Australian voters oppose laws that allow religious schools to discriminate against students and teachers based on their orientation or identity, according to a recent poll.

On Wednesday, a letter signed by 47 gay, transgender and intersex organizations called on the government to end discrimination. “Teachers should be focusing on educating their students, not worrying about losing their job,” the letter said.

While the debate on the government’s proposal has largely focused on Christian schools, the same exemptions apply to all religious educational institutions (and in New South Wales, to all private schools).

In Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community, a teacher reported losing her job after revealing she was transgender. And gay Muslim students in Australia often face homophobia, bullying and even violence, say leaders in that community.

Nur Warsame, the first openly gay imam in Australia, who runs Marhaba Melbourne — a support group for gay and transgender youth — said he feared that the government’s report has opened “the floodgates” for hurt and discrimination in the name of religion.

“I don’t want to see more 13-year-olds jumping off the Gap,” said Timothy Hall, a gay man and the former principal of a Christian school in New South Wales, referring to a cliff in Sydney that has become infamous for suicide.

Mr. Hall was blackmailed into resigning after his school found out he was gay.

“It saddens me that I can’t go in as a gay teacher, or be a role model, saying you can be gay and you can be Christian and this is the way we move forward,” he said of the current rules regarding gay teachers in religious schools.

After teaching at the United Nations International School in New York for 14 years, Mr. Hall returned to Australia in the hopes of eventually returning to work at a religious school.

Churches around the world were becoming more gay-affirming, he said, but Australia continued to drag its feet. “It’s tragic that conversation hasn’t moved forward,” Mr. Hall said. “Society has moved on.”





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