Religious Schools

Rugby Stars, Religious Schools, and the Charge of Hypocrisy

I wasn’t going to write about the Israel Folau saga: given that oceans of ink have already been spilled on the topic, I wondered what else I might be able to contribute. Surely everything that could be said has been said?

Well, not quite. There are some commentators who think that criticising Rugby Australia’s decision to sack Folau bars a person from also supporting a faith-based school’s right to employ staff on the basis of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof). For Peter Van Onselen, this is an egregious case of religiously-tinged hypocrisy. For David Marr, holding both views simultaneously not only manifests cognitive dissonance; it also reveals the inherent arrogance of conservative religion. So far as I can tell, no one has tried to rebut these assertions.

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To be sure, the alleged equation between Israel Folau’s firing and the hiring policies of religious schools – issues that have intensified the confused debate concerning religious liberty in Australia – is superficially compelling. RA’s CEO, Raelene Castle, insisted recently that the sporting body was well within its rights to sack Folau, since he had violated some of its key values. She implied that by posting his now-infamous tweet, the former rugby star had fallen afoul of RA’s commitment to “inclusion”. Castle also added that it was “important” the code “defend [its] values”, which presumably meant firing one of the Wallabies’ most important players.

In what appears to be a similar principle at work, the leaders of religious schools and their supporters argue that a faith-based institution ought to be able to employ and dismiss staff according to its grounding principles. To condemn the former whilst applauding the latter might indeed seem duplicitous – a form of religious privilege masquerading as high ideals, which critics like Marr regularly flay.

To reach such a conclusion, however, would be hasty. For whatever similarities hold between the two cases, they are outweighed by key differences. Though not as apparent, those differences are far more consequential.

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There are several crucial issues concerning the two cases in question: differences in the respective values at play, the nature of the institutions articulating those values, and the subsequent demands placed upon employees. The principles inhering within a faith-based school are essential to its institutional identity – marking it out as a distinct religio-educational entity, and leading naturally to an understanding of staff duties that includes adherence to those principles. As I shall suggest below, the absence of any real parallel in a sporting body like RA means that cries of hypocrisy simply do not apply. This requires a degree of stage-setting, so bear with me.

Consider the relationship between a religious school and one of its teachers. In addition to undertaking discipline-specific responsibilities (teaching maths, for example), the employee is in most cases expected to uphold that institution’s foundational values. As I have written before, the raison d’etre of a faith-based school is the transmission of those values to students. Not only are students educated in the various subjects one commonly associates with school; they are also enjoined to engage in a broader process of intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation, set within the religious matrix that informs the school’s ethos. This is part of the institution’s core aim of propagating a particular vision of reality. Staff members are not only expected to conform to that vision; where appropriate, they are to reinforce it (gracefully and winsomely, of course) with students. Such expectations are neither arbitrary nor tangential. Rather, they naturally flow from, and are rooted in, the school’s overriding mission and identity.

None of this is unique to faith-based schools: all bodies predicated upon the articulation of a certain set of beliefs – philosophical, political, or religious – require members to reflect and promote that institutional identity. This is grounded in the recognition that such beliefs are constitutive of the body’s distinctiveness – something without which it would simply fail to exist as it is. To borrow an example from a previous post, it would be quite odd if the Australian Greens remained sanguine about an employee who thought that anthropogenic global warming was a hoax, and was unflagging in his support for fossil fuels. This is for the obvious reason that the Greens’ entire purpose is constituted by a “deep-green” environmentalist philosophy at odds with so-called climate “denialism”. Indeed, to retain such an individual would be self-defeating in the context of the Greens’ overall aims. We can therefore say that there exists a rational connection between the values of an institution of this kind, and the subsequent demands made upon individual employees.

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For orthodox Christian schools, staff requirements are likely to include adherence to a conservative view of sex and sexuality. It’s important to elaborate this point, for proscriptions against certain types of sexual conduct aren’t simply a set of arbitrary rules, which can be discarded at will. They are integral to the wider body of Christian beliefs – beliefs which claim to say something crucial about reality – and cannot be easily amputated.

According to most Christians (including most Christian educators), beliefs concerning sexual and gender expression are rooted in what orthodox believers take to be the authoritative word of Scripture, behind which stands an understanding of God’s designs for the flourishing of his creation. Indeed, there is good reason to think that woven into the fabric of biblical revelation is an understanding of sexual relations as grounded in gendered/biological complementarity. Sexual distinctiveness is central to the originating vision for human beings, as set forth at the very beginning of the Bible’s master narrative (Gen 1:27-28; 2:20b-25). That harmony-in-difference is consistent with the integration of created polarities – land and sea, night and day (Gen 1:1-25) – while its most obvious sequel, procreation, reflects the native creativity of the God in whose image humans are made.

The NT clearly reinforces this vision. Jesus cited the creation mandate in a debate with some Pharisees over the legitimacy of divorce (Matt 19:5; cf. Gen 2:24). For him, marriage is a one-flesh union between male and female specifically, which should be sundered only under the most extreme conditions. To defer to the authority of such a passage is to implicitly affirm what it says about the gendered nature of sexual congress. Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Paul selected same-sex erotic relationships to illustrate humanity’s debasement in Romans 1 (vv.26-27). This wasn’t because sexual intimacy between, say, two men was seen as more egregious than other types of wrongdoing. Rather, homosexual conduct provided for the apostle a clear and ready manifestation of the thoroughgoing corruption of human beings, and the universal misdirection of their divinely-ordained telos. Behind his denunciation lay the belief that same-sex eroticism signalled humanity’s collective failure to live within the sacred structures of reality, as portrayed in (amongst other places) Genesis 1-2.

All this is to say that how one expresses oneself sexually is hardly peripheral within the ambit of classical Christianity. Given the cosmic implications involved – i.e., the boundaries of the created moral order, and its role in framing human behaviour – these convictions are of central importance. Indeed, they are indelibly tied to the nature of scriptural revelation and its purchase on theological, ontological, and ethical truth. As the Roman historian, Kyle Harper, has observed:

“Sexual morality [for early, as for most modern, Christians] was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God”.

Upholding certain standards of sexual conduct reflects their significance as key constituents of the very worldview animating an orthodox religious school. Likewise the obligation that every staff member observes such standards, stemming as it does from the school’s overriding mission.

Let me summarise what I have been arguing for thus far. Conservative Christian schools (or Jewish, or Muslim) can be said to be characterised by two defining features: the inherent requirements pertaining to staff responsibilities, enjoining them to embody and articulate a certain set of religio-ethical values (including those pertaining to sexuality); and behind this, the constitutive nature of the values they espouse.

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Contrast this with RA and its stated commitment to a culture of “inclusion”. Whatever one says about the concept, it is implausible to claim that: a) “inclusion” is a constitutive part of RA’s mission or identity; and b) that there exists a clear, rational relationship between a rugby player’s role and conformity to that particular value. RA was established for the express purpose of administering the game of rugby union in Australia. As a body charged with governing a professional sporting code, RA’s founding had little to do with the promotion of a certain set of ethical values. Excise all reference to “inclusion” from RA’s communications and official statements, and its fundamental aims remain largely unaffected. Moreover, the concept itself is one of near-limitless elasticity, the meaning of which is deeply unstable; trying to divine the function of so vague an idea within the institutional architecture of RA is fraught with difficulty. It simply isn’t an inherent component of a sport’s core business in the way that certain views of (e.g.) sexual conduct are for the identity and purpose of orthodox religious schools. At best, “inclusion” is a non-essential (though non-conflicting) adjunct to an institution created long before the concept’s emergence within late-modern culture.

Similarly, while the specific purpose of a faith-based school rationally grounds an employee’s obligation to act as a conduit for her employer’s tradition, the requirements of an Australian rugby union player like Israel Folau are largely limited to competent execution of his on-field responsibilities – not deference to an ill-defined concept only tangentially related to his normal professional duties. While he may have been required to refrain from behaviour deemed manifestly disreputable (e.g., criminal acts), his chief role was to play his chosen sport to as high a standard as possible. Folau’s function within the enterprise of Australian rugby union was therefore qualitatively different from that played by an educator in, say, a Christian high school – precisely because the two institutions are qualitatively different in nature, constitution, and goals.

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The upshot of all this is that glib denunciations, such as those slung by the likes of David Marr and Peter Van Onselen, simply ignore the crucial distinctions I have tried to outline. The charge of hypocrisy – whatever its rhetorical power – is of no substantive use, being little more than a category error. What I have raised here means that one can, without a whit of hypocrisy or privilege, hold simultaneously the views in question. If critics weren’t so willing to allow their anti-conservative animus to trump logical acumen, they’d be able to recognize this.

Religious Schools and LGBTI Rights: a Delicate Balance

Note: a slightly different version of this article recently appeared in Engage.mailthe monthly online newsletter administered by the Evangelical Alliance’s Ethos think-tank. 

Introduction

The rancorous debate concerning religious freedom and the rights of the LGBTI community has produced several troubling side-effects, not least of which has been a tug-of-war over language. Take the word “discrimination”, which is now contested linguistic and conceptual territory. While all sides acknowledge that invidious discrimination can occur in the public sphere, many LGBTI activists are convinced that to make distinctions on the basis of sexual expression or gender identity – even those grounded in a wider system of religious beliefs – constitutes action that is, by its very nature, unfair.

I have been reminded of this repeatedly over the past year or so, as a series of disputes concerning LGBTI students and teachers in religious schools continues to smoulder. On one side stand religious liberty advocates, who argue that a faith-based school should be permitted to hire or dismiss staff according to its guiding system of values. On the other side are LGBTI activists and their allies, all of whom are equally convinced that such practices are intrinsically unjust and stall the liberationist enterprise. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those fighting for what they view as the fundamental rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and so forth. Moreover, on the question of LGBTI students in faith-based schools, I’d suggest we’re largely in agreement. Even in the case of teachers, the issue is not, for example, sexual orientation per se, but competing lifestyles and value systems. But having said all that, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there exist many activists who cynically weaponise the language of discrimination to subjugate their ideological opponents.

Demands that anti-discrimination laws be broadly applied to religious schools – institutions that have traditionally enjoyed exemptions from this legal architecture – have grown more strident. Brandishing placards and shouting their slogans, advocates decry religious schools choosing not to employ LGBTI teachers as an illegitimate expression of religious freedom. For them, all further discussion is foreclosed. Advocates passionately insist that, if a teacher’s primary role is to educate students according her specialty, then other attributes (e.g., homosexuality and any resultant conduct) should be seen as immaterial to the inherent requirements of the position. Any attempt to deny employment on such grounds is a manifest example of invidious discrimination and religious bigotry. This fervent activism is buttressed by the more sober reflections of advocates for reform in the legal profession, who attempt to argue upon jurisprudential grounds that faith-based schools should enjoy only the narrowest of exemptions in this domain.

The marriage of white-hot ardour and cool rationality forms a potent mix. And to be fair, the debate is not helped by current legal uses of the word ‘discrimination’ and its scope. Mischievous though some activists may be, their position is inadvertently reinforced by the way religious exemptions to such laws are currently articulated. As at least one commentator has observed, saying that religious institutions ought to sit outside the bounds of relevant anti-discrimination legislation invites the idea that the religious have been grudgingly given a reprieve from what is otherwise deemed to be objectionable conduct. This likely gives succour to some people calling for such exemptions to be repealed. But even if one concedes that the framing of current legislation is inadequate, it’s still true that, in prosecuting their case, many LGBTI advocates – whether sincere or cynical – who denounce religious schools appear to elide the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate instances of discrimination.

The purpose of faith-based schools

The real question, then, is not whether religious freedom entails freedom of discrimination per se, but what kinds of discrimination are appropriate or fair. Should a faith-based school be permitted to distinguish between staff on the basis of particular types of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof)? Or does such permission implicitly endorse decisions that are manifestly cruel and bigoted?

It is here that an account of what religious schools are, and what they seek to achieve, is germane. For a religious school to hire teachers according to their adherence to the school’s guiding ethos is, I would argue, neither unfair nor invidious. Rather, it represents the natural sequel to the foundational principles supplying the institution with its raison d’etre in the first place. Such practices are critical if a religious educational institution is to maintain its specific identity. It is difficult to see how one could disagree with the proposition, considered generically, that a faith-based school should be given some autonomy to employ staff that will, in both confession and conduct, uphold the institution’s governing philosophy.

On this view, pedagogy is about far more than the transmission of discretely-packaged information to students. Religious educational institutions exist in part to convey such information within the context of a religiously-grounded worldview, and to engage students in a process of moral formation according to the tenets of the traditions they represent. Obviously, such a project will not always succeed: many students leave such schools unchanged, or may even repudiate the institution’s teachings entirely. But this oft-repeated reality has nothing to do with the principle at issue. For those schools that have been self-consciously established to communicate the ethos of a particular religion (apart from the task of instructing students in the various subjects common to all schools), it would seem self-defeating not to try and employ educators who can successfully embody them.

In the case of, say, conservative Christian institutions, this will likely mean upholding certain standards concerning sexuality and sexual identity. Faith-based schools seeking to imbue the life of their community with the values of their grounding tradition will normally do so through the conduits of teachers’ lives (among other means). Thus, if their goal is to uphold the particulars of their religious worldview, and doing so is partly achieved through the modelling behaviour of staff, then whether or not a person’s life reflects those values is deeply relevant. None of this is unique to faith-based schools, either. A moment’s thought will reveal that institutions of all types make certain demands on prospective members and stakeholders as way of maintaining their identity. Take political parties, for example. Would it be illegitimate for, say, the Liberal Party to continue formal association with a member who suddenly began espousing Marxist ideology? Similarly, would the Greens be wrong to expel someone – or refuse to hire them in the first place – if that individual were a so-called climate ‘denier’ and an enthusiast for fossil fuels? If these are legitimate forms of discrimination (owing to the character of certain beliefs and behavioural traits), what makes religious institutions any different?

Just how important is the issue of sexuality, really?

So far, so good. However, while some LGBTI advocates accept certain forms of differentiation, they are likely to maintain that one’s sexuality should be largely immune to discriminatory action. The Human Rights Law Commission offered an example of this distinction, seen in their submission to the relevant senate inquiry last year. Lying behind the claim seems to be the notion that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t relevant to education at a faith-based school in the way, say, that creedal differences are, for they allegedly lack the defining importance of belief in Christ’s divinity or Muhammed’s supreme prophethood. But this assumes precisely what is at issue. To contend or imply that a person’s sexual mores are immaterial to their job as an educator in a religious context presumes without warrant that such conduct lies outside a given religion’s central doctrines – a minor piece of adiaphora, as it were.

I can’t speak for Jews, Muslims and other religionists who may bristle at the thought of faith-based schools being compelled to hire people whose lives fail to embody their traditions. But orthodox Christianity would regard such a view as deeply unsatisfactory. Even if the expression of one’s sexuality does not sit at the heart of the Christian faith – a privileged locale reserved for such distinguishing claims as God’s triune nature, or the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ – it is far from trivial. After all, the book of Genesis has God create man and woman, who are called to bind themselves to each other in a union of sexual complements (Genesis 1:26-28). That this passage lies at the very head of the biblical narrative, prior to the catastrophic irruption of sin within creation, implies that it is a special part of the Creator’s originating vision for those bearing his likeness. Indeed, the creative endowments of human beings – seen most uniquely in the intrinsic capacity to generate new life – crucially reflect God’s far superior creativity. A glance at the New Testament reinforces the significance of this design. Its pages reveal both a renewed endorsement of that vision, as proclaimed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6), and a denunciation of same-sex erotic relationships as a particularly clear manifestation of humanity’s disordered nature and conduct (Romans 1:26-27).

Obviously, these points would need to be fleshed out in greater detail, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with their underlying assumptions. However, on a Christian analysis, sexuality and sexual expression are indelibly tied to our status as God’s image-bearers and the divinely sanctioned order we are meant to inhabit. For those reasons, questions of sex take on heightened significance, concerning as they do the degree to which one’s life reflects that order. Indeed, an orthodox Christian view of sex recognises it as a key manifestation of a particular anthropology (i.e., what humans are) and a particular cosmology (i.e., the created framework within which humans must conduct their lives). Gendered complementarity in human sexual relationships is, in other words, something that has been woven into the fabric of creation by God. As the Eastern Orthodox writer and cultural commentator, Rod Dreher, notes in his book, The Benedict Option, to live contrary to the divine will in this regard doesn’t simply break a set of ancient taboos. Rather, it constitutes one’s failure ‘to live in accord with the structure of [created] reality itself’.

All this is to say that, in the context of a Christian educational institution, the sexual relationships of its teachers cannot be dismissed as of little importance. Nor can it be condemned as a rationalisation of the basest kind of bigotry. We do well to return to my earlier, general comments concerning the goals of such schools. Efforts to permeate their corporate lives with the religious principles on which they were founded must logically include the ethical and behavioural demands that flow from them; anything else simply drives an artificial wedge between the cognitive and practical dimensions of the faith. And given that one of the key means of transmitting this ethos to students is via their embodiment in staff, adherence to the standards of orthodox Christianity is hardly irrelevant. Quite the opposite, in fact: conformity to a Christian ethic is inseparable from maintenance of a religious school’s peculiar identity, such that the inherent requirements of teaching roles extend beyond mere pedagogy and discipline-specific knowledge, and into the domain of Christian praxis.

The imposition of state-sanctioned beliefs: an intolerable outcome

To be sure, we have lately witnessed the splintering of the Western church on the issue of sexuality. Consensus on this question is rapidly eroding. But even if there exists internal dispute over the importance of sexual conduct to Christian faith, there is no compelling reason why the state should arrogate to itself the task of determining the proper contours of a particular religion. Writing his dissenting opinion in Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Service some years ago, Redlich JA trenchantly noted that the Victorian Supreme Court was not properly trained to assess whether opposition to homosexuality was a key doctrine of the faith-based group concerned (p.13):

Neither human rights law nor the terms of the exemption required a secular tribunal to attempt to assess theological propriety. The tribunal was neither equipped nor required to evaluate the applicants’ moral calculus.

Secular state officials are manifestly ill-equipped to judge theological and doctrinal matters. Moreover, they lack the requisite ‘insider’ knowledge to be able to weigh the relative importance of creedal claims. But heeding calls to end exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation would lead to precisely this kind of judicial oversight. Anyone who values the institutional separation of church and state (where ‘church’ is defined somewhat more broadly) should be alarmed by this proposal. Such advocacy, if successful, means inhibiting a religious entity from articulating and embodying its governing ethos. In other words, it entails the encroachment of government institutions upon sacred territory traditionally regarded as verboten, that is, fundamentally impermissible. I don’t know how else to describe this but as an assault on religious liberty and a subversion of our modern pluralistic culture. If, as a society, we’re willing to permit religious educational institutions to make employment decisions based on their grounding principles, then this surely includes some latitude in regard to which principles are to be used as a framework to guide those decisions. The alternative simply invites interference by external authorities in what ought to be the free expression of a religious worldview.

Tackling another illegitimate distinction

The argument I have tried to delineate also has a deflationary effect on another distinction some advocates attempt to make – namely, between positions in a religious school that are connected with ritual observance or doctrinal teaching, and those that aren’t. This could be called a form of meta-discrimination, with only one type of role being susceptible to a process of discriminatory action. Again, the HRLC provides a ready example of this cast of mind (p.18): it recommends rescinding exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act in most instances, whilst permitting ongoing differentiation/discrimination when it comes to conventional ‘religious’ roles. Behind these respective suggestions lies the apparent assumption that there exists a fundamental difference between positions involving pastoral care, religious observance and the like, and those that don’t (pp.16-17).

Unfortunately, the suggestion introduces an artificial disjunction into the understanding of religion generally, and faith-based schools specifically. For serious adherents of any religion, manifestations of spirituality are not confined to particular acts of ritual or devotion. Such activity, while central, is only one component in the complex web of faith. For Christians, say, one’s allegiance to Christ is not simply a case of verbal confession or cognitive belief. Nor is it exhausted by overt expressions of religious observance. Rather, it is meant to be worked out in the mosaic of everyday life, shaping the believer’s approach to everything from work and friendships to time and political participation. And, as I have already indicated, a religious school seeks to inculcate just this comprehensive understanding of faith – a task that is, once again, partly achieved through the embodiment of that faith in school staff. Their comprehensive approach to education means that positions within such institutions cannot be distinguished so simplistically.

It’s true, of course, that some roles might be more directly identified with the architecture of the school’s governing religion. Chaplaincy comes to mind as one obvious example. But it does not follow from this that other staff members may not be called upon to exhibit the virtues of the faith, provide (informal) pastoral care to students, offer general vocational advice within the context of Christian faithfulness, answer a student’s awkward questions, or attempt to situate various domains of knowledge within a Christian worldview. What I have argued concerning faith-based schools and their constitutive goals indicates that any attempt to starkly divide ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ roles is forced to rely on a false dichotomy – one recognised by most serious adherents as unfaithful to a holistic, integrated expression of religion.

Conclusion

Earlier, I noted that the language of discrimination is often used in cynical fashion by some LGBTI activists. Notwithstanding the presence of genuine, good-faith differences between advocates on either side of the issue, brandishing the word “discrimination” has the (often intended) effect of de-legitimising the views of religious liberty advocates before they have been properly aired. But this isn’t the only unwelcome consequence. LGBTI activists also succeed in corrupting portions of our language by using words like “discrimination” so cavelierly. History has repetedly shown that when words become the handmaidens of nakedly political projects, the prospects for open, rational discourse — discourse committed to the pursuit of truth — rapidly recede. That is something no one should want, even those who are prepared to conscript language for their own ends.

Where do we go from here? The victory of the Coalition during Australia’s recent Federal election seems to have had a retarding effect on the activist tide. Indeed, several analyses have already appeared, partly attributing the Australian Labor Party’s loss to the party’s alienation of large swathes of religious people. This may force the party to re-assess its attitude to matters of religious liberty and to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved – rejecting barely-concealed disdain (see 7:11-7:50 in this Q & A segment) for people of conservative faith, and recognising the electoral value in taking them seriously. I hope this is the case, and that such concerns will now receive bi-partisan support. If Australia is to maintain its status as an authentically pluralist society – in which mutually irreconcilable views and practices nonetheless exist in relative harmony – then I think a robust re-commitment to such freedoms is the most sensible path forward.