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Marriage is between man and woman: School under fire over 'discriminatory' statement

The Bethlehem Campus. Photo / George Novak

The Bethlehem Campus. Photo / George Novak

A Christian college is under fire for asking parents to acknowledge a belief that marriage is between a man and a woman - something one LGBTQIA+ advocate has labelled "discriminatory".

But Tauranga's Bethlehem College says the statement is not intended to tell anyone what they are required to believe but to "transparently explain what we believe".

The school has a Statement of Belief and Statement of Special Character which is signed by parents enrolling students.

The Statement of Belief contains 13 items a student's parent or caregiver must read and tick the box beside "confirming you acknowledge that these statements summarise key beliefs of the Christian Education Trust, and underpin the School's Special Character".

It says all students and their families are expected to "demonstrate a commitment to the School's Special Character" and has dotted lines for two parents or caregivers to sign the document.

The last point in the Statement of Belief is: "Marriage is an institution created by God in which one man and one woman enter into an exclusive relationship intended for life, and that marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations".

But Tauranga pride advocate Gordy Lockhart said this point was "discriminatory" and against the Marriage Amendment Act which enabled couples to marry regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

"It's totally inappropriate in 2022."

He said it was easier for people to come out these days but "it's still a frightening and very brave thing for kids to do".

Lockhart said that for someone navigating how they might view themselves in the world on the LGBTQIA+ scale, the school's black-and-white approach to sexual orientation was concerning.

He felt it could contribute to "significant" mental health issues in young people.

"If they've got a piece of documentation, website or feeling in the school that's saying [being gay] is not okay, what does that do to that kid?"

He said, in his opinion, children on the LGBTQIA+ scale, who did not discuss this with their parents, were being told by the school: "They're not welcome to be who they are".

Lockhart was so concerned by the Statement of Belief he sent a letter to Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti on December 8 saying an investigation into this type of practice at all religious schools was necessary.

He wrote that the Statement of Belief went against the Education and Training Act, the Human Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins responded to Lockhart's letter in March saying the ministry would engage directly with Bethlehem College about the matter.

Hipkins said under the Education and Training Act 2020, a school's board was required to ensure the school was a physically and emotionally safe place to be, uphold students' rights and take all reasonable steps to eliminate any form of discrimination.

"School policies around LGBTQIA+ students should protect and promote the safety and inclusion of all students."

Hipkins said Bethlehem College was a state-integrated school and had the right to reflect, through its teaching and conduct, the school's agreed education with a special character.

In a statement to the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, Hipkins said he had asked the Ministry of Education to follow up and understood the local office was continuing to work with the school on the matter.

Hipkins said he and the Ministry of Education were committed to ensuring schools were "supportive and safe environments for LGTBQIA+ students".

InsideOUT managing director Tabby Besley was "absolutely concerned" about the point and felt it should be removed from the school's Statement of Belief.

She said the New Zealand charity had a vision for all rainbow young people to have a sense of safety and belonging in their schools and communities.

Besley said the statement sent a "blanket message of unacceptance" to rainbow students and those questioning their identity.

"They need to get rid of that statement because as long as they have that in place, I just can't see how they can truly be upholding their obligation to create a safe, welcoming school where rainbow students' wellbeing is cared for."

In her opinion, the fact parents were signing the statement could "create real fear for young people to come to come out or share their identity with parents".

"Every school needs to be looking at their responsibilities under the Education and Training Act which is about providing a school that is free of discrimination and supporting the wellbeing of students."

She said there were ways Christian schools, such as Bethlehem College, could hold their religious beliefs and the wellbeing of students side by side.

InsideOUT offered resources to support Christian schools to create rainbow inclusive environments while maintaining special character.

Bethlehem College board of trustees chairman Paul Shakes said the school was founded to provide a Bible-based, Christian education.

This was why many parents chose to send their children to the school, he said.

"We, therefore, have a duty to our school community, as well as a legal responsibility, to maintain our special character as a Christian school."

He said the special character was "openly" expressed through commitments such as the Statement of Belief, which included a "well-recognised mainstream Christian understanding of marriage".

The statement was not intended to tell anyone what they were required to believe, but rather to "transparently explain what we believe", he said.

Shakes said in his opinion: "New Zealand law, including the Human Rights Act, doesn't give anyone the right to force others to adopt their beliefs, which is what Mr Lockhart appears to be attempting in this case."

He also said the school endeavoured to "live out our beliefs in a loving and respectful manner". And students that needed support in any area were encouraged to speak to school counsellors.

He cited the most recent Education Review Office report that stated the college's special Christian character "contributes to a strong sense of wellbeing and belonging for students".

"It's worth noting our Christian beliefs support and enhance the health and wellbeing of our students."

Ministry of Education Te Tai Whenua (central) hautū (leader) Jocelyn Mikaere said it had received "some" complaints about the "discriminatory nature" of the point in the Statement of Belief.

It was working with both the Board of Trustees and the proprietors of Bethlehem College to address them, she said.

She said the statement was not included in the integration agreement Bethlehem College entered into with the Education Minister.

Bethlehem College was founded in 1988 by the Christian Education Trust. The trust incorporates early childhood centres, a combined primary and secondary school, an English language school and tertiary training to degree level in teaching and counselling.