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The looming battle of faith in higher education

by ervte

It is not uncommon for the volume of the culture war to be ramped up to eleven during an election campaign. Debates over the definitions of women and transgender athletes, Indigenous or Western history in the national curriculum, and sexual morality in religious institutions all come to a head this week.

However, many who participate in these debates often forget where the resulting lawsuits usually occur – where the rubber hits the ivory tower.

The culture wars peak in universities and higher education, with the ensuing implications of court decisions trickling down to industries and communities.The looming battle of faith in higher education

The Complexity Universities Face with Changing Gender Laws

Take the just-solved US case Meriwether v The Trustees of Shawnee State University. In this case, university officials disciplined philosophy professor Dr. Nicholas Meriwether for rejecting a male student’s requirement to use feminine pronouns. His objection was based on his philosophical and religious beliefs, but he did offer to compromise by using the student’s chosen name instead. The university refused and instead instructed the professor to use the pronouns. The case went to court, and the university was eventually ordered to pay $400,000 in damages and withdraw its policy.

Or the 2019 UK case of Felix Ngole, a social work student expelled from his course at the University of Sheffield for posting comments on his personal Facebook page supporting biblical teachings on marriage and sexual ethics. Felix was told that he has “provoked offense to some individuals” and “broadened boundaries deemed inappropriate for anyone entering the social work profession.” A judge ruled against Ngole after a 2017 Supreme Court trial in London. Still, three appeal judges overturned the ruling, saying the university acted in a discriminatory manner.

Or finally, consider the case of Trinity Western University (TWU) v the Law Society of Upper Canada. TWU sought to uphold its faith ethos for staff and students through a Community Covenant Agreement, which included a clause stating their belief that “sexual intimacy should be limited to the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman”. Two Canadian provincial law associations decided not to allow graduates of recognized and accredited legal degrees to practice in the provinces because of the College’s beliefs, claiming they would “harm” LGBTI+ students. Canada’s Supreme Court sided with the Law Societies in a 7-2 decision, with the dissenting judges noting the serious compromise of the decision on TWU’s religious freedom.

While the above examples are all international cases, there have been similar cases in Australia of students, teachers, and institutions being adversely affected for offending the New Orthodoxy. None of them have reached the higher courts, but there is no doubt that these higher education issues will arise during the next parliamentary term.

The Value of Faith-Based Institutions and What Can Be Lost

The most likely institutions to catch up are those in Victoria, where the Andrews administration has passed laws that pose a serious risk of criminal charges to any conversations about gender dysphoria or sexual orientation that are anything but fully affirmative. Andrews has also changed Victorian anti-discrimination laws that deprive religious institutions of the right to employ only staff who uphold their religious culture and ethos. There have even been rumors of Australian professional accreditation bodies considering a ban on recognizing graduates from certain institutions with traditional beliefs.

Undoubtedly, many Australians support such legal poachers, who view faith-based higher education as an ancient relic that they would like to see pulverized to dust. However, what would be lost if these institutions were not adequately protected from the ominous tsunami of lawyers on the horizon is worth considering.

Universities. Surveys show graduates from faith-based institutions are three times more likely to enter the human service sector, 2.5 times more likely to be involved in community service, and significantly higher on average student satisfaction than the larger public sector. They are the main suppliers of health professionals, counselors, youth workers, pastors, social workers, chaplains, and teachers. Faith-based higher education institutions play a key role in our nation’s service and the rich diversity that makes up any strong education system in a liberal democracy.

Australia does need a religious discrimination bill.

It is, therefore, deeply concerning to see that the 46th Parliament has failed to close the blatant legal gap in religious discrimination, despite the support of 82% of the 48,000 respondents in the recent report by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. The coalition could not deliver on this election promise, and several Liberal Liberal MPs chose to speak on the issue. In any case, Prime Minister Morrison has pledged to reintroduce the legislation, although it is increasingly doubtful whether he would have the numbers.

On the other hand, labor is guilty of ignoring the religious vote in the last election and risks making the same mistake. The opposition leader has not committed to a religious discrimination bill but has indicated to ACHEA that Labor will seek further consultations instead (apparently setting aside the last five years of thorough consultation on the issue). However, they have committed to expanding anti-discrimination laws and the ALRC’s review of religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act. Sadly, they offer little comfort to those facing imminent legal challenges.

If whoever forms the government cannot balance religious freedom and competing rights before Christmas, the cultural wars will likely continue into eternity. If this is the case, God bless us, for our faith is waning as far as the politicians’ ability to rise above the culture wars and get the job done.

Dr. Jeannie Trudel is President of the Australian Christian Higher Education Alliance (ACHEA) and President of Christian Heritage College.