Students and parents at an Australian Catholic school have resisted administrators’ decision to host a program where the presenters advocated that people vote against marriage equality in the nation’s non-binding plebiscite on that issue, which is now underway.
Officials at St. Brigid’s College, Lesmurdie, a high school in Western Australia, invited a Christian group called “Loving for Life” to lead a sexual education program for 11th and 12th graders. Students claim the presenters urged the registered voters among them to vote “No” in the plebiscite. Students have responded by posting pro-marriage equality signs around the school.
A St. Brigid’s parent told WA News that “kids came out of the program saying it seemed they were urged to vote no, and they were obviously pretty upset.” The parent added:
“‘They said they were told about how marriage should be between a man and a woman and why that’s the case, and of course there’s a few girls in the class who are gay, and they said they just felt completely unsupported by their school. . .Why would they come out to the school the week the postal vote was sent out? I don’t believe [it was a coincidence] for a second.'”
A student said presenters framed the program as an “open discussion,” but “any time that one of us had our own opinions. . .we were shut down, ignored and told we were wrong.” Parents were also upset that no consent form had been sent to them, as is standard for sexual education.
Both Loving for Life and St. Brigid’s administrators are denying the program’s content deviated from the normal presentation to include anything on marriage equality. Dr. Amelia Toffoli, the principal, said:
“‘The College has no intention of influencing individual family decisions in relation to the Marriage Equality postal survey, nor does it endorse programs that are intended to politicise important social matters affecting its community’. . .
“‘St Brigid’s College seeks to provide a learning environment that supports students to develop as critical thinkers, who are able to consider and respect diverse viewpoints and contribute meaningfully to their communities whilst understanding Catholic teaching on important issues, such as the Church’s teaching on marriage.'”
Whether administrators intended to influence students’ views on marriage equality or not, hosting an LGBT-negative program at this moment was an insensitive decision. The plebiscite now underway has prompted a heated and sometimes nasty debate, including the public posting of neo-Nazi literature targeting LGBT parents. This moment is therefore one in which Catholic schools should be especially supportive of LGBT and questioning students.
If St. Brigid’s administrators need a model for how to provide this support, they can look to other Catholic schools in Australia. For example, rectors at Xavier College in Melbourne and Saint Ignatius’ College in Sydney called on their school communities to discern carefully about how they will vote in the plebiscite. In addition, Trinity Catholic College in New South Wales recently welcomed two transgender students and provided them necessary accommodations.
Beyond officials’ actions, however, are students’ actions to be inclusive. Faced with programming that was not inclusive and may have created an unsafe environment, St. Brigid’s students affirmed clearly the goodness of LGBT people and their relationships. In their resistance, we can all find hope for the future.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 15, 2017