Religious Freedom Test Case – Ballarat Christian College

Recently the media reported on a critical test case being brought against Ballarat Christian College in Victoria.

In stories in the Herald-Sun and The Australian, copies below, report of the claim being lodged in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal by a former teacher of the school,  The teacher claims the school discriminated against her due to her political and religious ­beliefs, which include support for same-sex marriage, according to the article in the Herald-Sun.

Other articles followed in the local Ballarat Courier and The Guardian.  Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher spoke in support of the school in a story in The Australian and on the Andrew Bolt segment on SkyNews.  The story was also covered in other media outlets and in a segment on Radio National’s Drive program.

Background

The school had made public its views on marriage as far back as 2015, before the teacher making the claim was most recently re-employed in 2016. At that time. as many may recall, the school had to close temporarily after vandals targeted the school after it publicly opposed marriage equality. 

Following same sex marriage being legalised in December, 2017, the College amended its Statement of Faith through its constitution to more explicitly outlining its position on marriage in accordance with orthodox, historical, Christian teaching.  The Statement now makes abundantly clear the College’s beliefs –

“God designed the two genders, male and female, for the purpose of joy and procreation within the sole relationship of marriage. So a marriage can only be between a male and a female, and upon this foundation alone should children be conceived and families formed.”

Following the approval of the updated Constitution by the College’s members staff were made aware of the expanded document in June 2018 and the next month Mrs Colvin made the College aware that she did not support the Statement of Faith.  The College commencing the dispute resolution processes under its enterprise agreement but before they could be finalised the teacher resigned in February 2019.

The Claim

The College subsequently received a Statement of Claim on 10 September.  According to a media release from Equality Australia, an activist group supporting the claim, Mrs Colvin is being represented pro bono by barristers Elizabeth Bennett (involved in the Melton Christian College matter on behalf of the VEOHRC), Tim Goodwin (a VEOHRC board member) and Suganya Pathan and law firm Clayton Utz – one of Australia’s largest.

The media release from Equality Australia quotes Mrs Colvin saying “I am bringing the case to let my LGBTQI students know that they aren’t deformed or disordered. They were created as they are, in the image of God, and that they are fully loved by God and share equal dignity with all human beings.” although there is no suggestion in the claim that the College has even made such claims in relation to same sex attracted students or those struggling with their gender identity.  This simply has never happened.

The media release goes on to indicate that “Mrs Colvin alleges discrimination by the non-denominational Christian College on the basis of her political and religious beliefs, which include as a Christian who believes that same sex marriage has the same potential as heterosexual marriage to be a reflection of God’s love when it reflects the life-giving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus.”

Implications for all Christian schools

The key issue in the matter being the difference of religious beliefs held by Mrs Colvin from those of the College.  At stake is the ability of Christian schools to require staff to fully support the religious beliefs of the school as a Christian learning community.  In ensuring that its Statement of Faith fully and expansively reflects its beliefs the College has done exactly what the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom recommended (recommendation 5) regarding making beliefs publicly available for employees.

While the outcome of the Tribunal hearing is technically not a binding precedent for any subsequent claims, for courts or for other States and Territories it will be referred to by human rights bodies as reflecting the law across Australia. Although each case would be determined on its merits should Mrs Colvin’s claim succeed it will be almost certain to lead to similar claims across the country.

Actions for all Christian schools

CSA has provided for many years detailed documentation to assist schools in preparing themselves to defend claims such as this one.  In the light of this action against the College and other assertions that have been made during the public debates around religious freedom work is currently under way to revise and update those documents.

While this is taking place we encourage all schools to continue to pray for Ballarat Christian College, its leadership and its community.  Pray for:

  • wisdom as they seek advice on responding to this claim,
  • strength as they may face further targeting because of their beliefs,
  • protection for their staff, parents and students, that they can continue to provide a high quality Christian education through this process,
  • a just and fair outcome.

We will continue to keep schools updated on the claim and how it is unfolding.

 

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