Most schools (religious included) want to make all students welcome

Imagine if the very conservatively minded Christian schools had said something like this. “We are concerned about transgender and gay students and want to make sure they are not humiliated or excluded by our schools, so we want to ensure their rights are protected. We will put their needs before ours. Please strengthen their protection before looking at the Religious Discrimination Bill.”

Whether we lean progressive or conservative, we’d all have been feeling happier now.

The cry from the heart, penned by Australian Christian Churches’ Pastor Mark Edwards, for schools to become more hospitable to transgender students, featured in Eternity, is an example of a longing to sort things out in a positive way.

It might be helpful to think of what has happened in the religious discrimination debate as an example of tunnel vision.

It may or may not be true that the desire for a religious discrimination bill came about due to the postal survey that led to same-sex marriage in Australia. But, the relatively narrow focus was on somehow preserving and enhancing the ability of some schools – what we will call the very conservative ones – to keep on doing what they are doing.

The concept of a “fair go” has now shifted to include a fair go for transgender and gay children in wider Australia.

This shift may be partly due to the “No case” campaigning that focussed on children in an attempt to win more votes – but that turned out to be a loser campaign.

But for some Christians, in campaigning for a religious discrimination bill, they doubled down, making children once again the focus.

The strategy was to relegate looking after gay and transgender students as something that could be addressed later, wait twelve months or so, and get the Australian Law Reform Commission to look at amending the Sex Discrimination Act that gives exemptions to religious bodies.

But once again, this strategy failed. The moderate wing of the Liberal Party – and the rest of the Lower House could not see sense in not protecting transgender kids while protecting religious people.

This result probably means a postal survey would have a similar result to the last one.

Christians, certainly evangelical and Pentecostal ones, have once again been put in the situation of defending their turf rather than being seen to want a level playing field – a fair go for all.

Christians, certainly evangelical and Pentecostal ones, have once again been put in the situation of defending their turf rather than being seen to want a level playing field – a fair go for all.

Perhaps we should have paid more attention to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist theoretician. He had a lot to say about the battle for position – not getting stuck in an indefensible place in a political struggle. Instead of which, many Christian conservatives just sneer at him as a putative author of “Cultural Marxism” – a contested idea.

Gramsci broke with Leninism in realising that socialism needed to come through building alliances within capitalist society, that a revolutionary party could not command the strongholds of the state. Similarly, Christians need to realise that we no longer hold our society’s “common sense” position. We can’t expect a new law that safeguards our rights to sail through Parliament. We need alliances – that need to be built on respecting the rights of others.

To be fair, some of the key campaigners for a religious discrimination bill realised this. That is why the bill would have benefited groups that are not Christian. Muslims need a fair go in building Mosques. Sikhs and Muslims need protection against being hassled in the streets.

Arguments in submissions from the progressive side of the debate also have gaps and problems. (In general, the more progressive submissions opposed the Religious Discrimination Bill, or wanted a “standard’ anti-discrimination bill, or a bill of rights). One law that was cited as best practice is the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act – and which Labor has promised not to wind back in any federal bill.

Patrick Parkinson has pointed out the Tasmanian law offers more protection – the right not to be offended – to some groups of people with protected characteristics than others. Religion is one of the less-protected attributes. (See here and here).

We can find skilful wordsmithing on the conservative side of the RDB debate too. At the same time, the very conservative Christian schools can point to moving to accept one amendment to the exemptions in the SDA – so that gay (LGB) students could not be expelled. But there was a crucial qualifier in the conservative schools and other advocates’ responses.

They use phrases like “simply for being gay” or “purely based on being gay”. These can be interpreted to mean that these students should not make any fuss. Which for teenagers could be unrealistic. The schools and groups like the ACL would not go that far for transgender students.

Schools could see themselves as wedged between upholding Christian teaching and the desire to hold onto customs (because that is all it is) of making LGBTIQA students invisible.

But in their hearts, many of the staff of the very conservative schools would, in many cases, do what most Christian, indeed most religious schools in Australia have already done, make all children welcome.

In reading this some readers might imagine that I am wishing all conflict away. I wish I could. But in schools that teach the Bible, students will hear something discordant with what they might experience. That’s true of all human beings –the Scriptures make us uncomfortable – or should. But the message needs to be gentle, respectful and taught with tears when required.

Teaching the Bible, rather than discouraging some students from attending schools, is a core Christian principle. We may not find many allies for it in broader society. It will be a challenge to do it winsomely and well, but what’s new about that?

Hanging on to an expansive set of rights for schools to only have Christian students or Christian-like students might not have been a sensible “hill to die on.”