Hung out to dry – the Citipointe saga

This week, Citipointe Christian College was the centre of a mini publicity maelstrom. In less than a week, the Brisbane Christian school first released and then hastily retracted its enrolment contract with parents after receiving a tsunami of outrage from activists, journalists and a small fringe of disaffected school stakeholders. Citipointe’s crime? It had included in its contract clear and unambiguous statements of orthodox Christian doctrines about sexual orientation and gender identity that are part of its wider orthodox Christian beliefs. In short, a Christian school had the courage and honesty to set out its clear doctrines and its intention to faithfully uphold those teachings in its school and then sent that to parents.

Amidst a flurry of pejorative press, journalists, politicians and commentariat screeched “Citipointe is discriminating against gay kids”.

Here is the thing. It’s not about gay kids.

Even though many hand-wringing and well-meaning Christians have tried desperately to breathe life into this straw man by engaging with it in opinion and commentary, the real issue is Christian doctrine. The kids are a Trojan horse. Citipointe has never expelled a child with same-sex attraction or a child with identity confusion, nor has any other Christian school. Indeed, Christian schools are one of the last places that vulnerable children are safe from society’s bombardment of children with hyper-sexualised teaching and unscientific identity theory.

The Citipointe saga is about an unrelenting attack on Christian teachings on sexuality and identity that are in the crossfire of a powerful anti-Christian activist lobby. After the tanks have rolled over Citipointe, they will aim their guns at the nuanced and wise Christian organisations who hold to an orthodox Biblical position on sexuality.

The rights of parents and religious communities to educate their children in accordance with their deeply held beliefs is a fundamental plank in the internationally recognised right to freedom of religious belief and activity in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

As Article 18 demonstrates, freedom of religious belief and activity is a unique human right. It is an individual right because religious belief is a matter of an individual’s personal conscience. However, it is also a communal right because individuals express their motivating religious conscience by coming together and forming religious communities. The international standards for limiting religious activity are extremely high, with the interpretive Siracusa Principles stating that religious activity is a non-derogable right – meaning that the right to freedom of religious belief is absolute and the right to freedom of religious activity is only to be limited in the most extreme of circumstances, such as when it is necessary to protect public safety and order.

If religious freedom is to be properly protected in Australia, religious communities need to be able to come together and publicly form schools like Citipointe to educate their children. If they can’t, then religious freedom will only be a second-tier right in Australia, at best.

Religious education is more than just imparting facts and curriculum content. It’s about faith communities coming together to provide an authentic faith-based education and educational environment where every aspect reflects and models the faith of the community. It’s up to parents and students to choose to join Citipointe’s Christian community – no one is forcing them to.

The only place where Citipointe’s Article 18(4) ICCPR rights are in any way effectively protected at law in Australia is in section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). This important balancing protection for religious freedom rights recognises that when schools like Citipointe conduct their school in accordance with their doctrines, tenets and beliefs they are not discriminating, but exercising their right to freedom of religious belief and activity.

Professor Neil Foster provides an excellent summary of the legal issues at play for Citipointe in his Law and Religion blog. Professor Foster points out that QLD law does not provide protection for Citipointe in the way that the SDA does, and neither will the much discussed Religious Discrimination Bill (if it is passed in its current form).

Citipointe’s maligned and now withdrawn enrolment contract obviously was not meant to “contract out of” the application of anti-discrimination laws as some critics have suggested. The contract was targeted at giving it the best possible footing for relying on protections in the SDA . Citipointe acted proactively and in response to the unrelenting pressure and the spectre of activist intrusion into their school.

Citipointe school withdrew its enrolment contract after intense public pressure. This is a blow for religious freedom. No one was forcing parents to sign the contract, it was a transparent statement of the school’s beliefs and what it means to be part of the school community. The activists who shouted down Citipointe want Christian schools to change and conform to the fashionable ideologies of the day.

If we want Australia to be a flourishing democracy, we need to respect fundamental religious freedom rights and allow space for Christian schools to ensure vulnerable children are given a safe space away from sexualisation and damaging ideology. A confident and diverse pluralism is not just good for Christian schools. It is good for Australian society.