Bethlehem College in Tauranga slammed for ‘discriminatory’ marriage beliefs
The Bethlehem campus. Photo / Georges Novak
A Christian college is being criticized for asking parents to acknowledge the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman – something an LGBTQIA+ advocate has called “discriminatory”.
But Bethlehem College in Tauranga 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 a Statement of Special Character that are signed by parents who enroll students.
The Statement of Belief contains 13 items for a student’s parent or guardian to read and tick the box next to “confirming that you acknowledge that these statements summarize the main beliefs of the Christian Education Trust and underpin the special character of the school”.
It says all students and their families must “demonstrate a commitment to the special character of the school” and has dotted lines for two parents or guardians to sign the document.
The final point of the statement of belief is: “Marriage is a God-created institution in which a man and a 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 lawyer Gordy Lockhart said the point was “discriminatory” and contrary to the Marriage Act which allowed couples to marry regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
“It’s totally inappropriate in 2022.”
He said it was easier for people to go out these days, but “it’s still a scary and very brave thing for kids to do”.
Lockhart said that for someone navigating how they might see 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 among young people.
“If they have any documentation or website or sentiment at school that says [being gay] disagree, what does it do to this kid?”
He said, in his opinion, that kids on the LGBTQIA+ scale, who didn’t discuss it with their parents, were being told by the school, “They’re not welcome to be who they are.”
Lockhart was so concerned about the statement of belief that he sent a letter to Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti on December 8, saying an investigation into this type of practice in all religious schools was needed.
He wrote that the statement of belief went against the Education and Training Act, the Human Rights Act and the Labor Relations Act.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins responded to Lockhart’s letter in March saying the department would engage directly with Bethlehem College on the matter.
Hipkins said that under the Education and Training Act 2020, a school’s governing body was required to ensure that the school was a physically and emotionally safe place, to respect the students’ rights and to take all reasonable steps to eliminate all forms of discrimination.
“School policies regarding LGBTQIA+ students must protect and promote the safety and inclusion of all students.”
Hipkins declared that Bethlehem College was a state-integrated school and had the right to reflect, in its teaching and conduct, the agreed education of the school with a special character.
In a statement to the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, Hipkins said he had asked the Department 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 Department of Education are committed to ensuring schools are “supportive and safe environments for LGTBQIA+ students.”
InsideOUT chief executive 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 has a vision for all young Rainbows to have a sense of safety and belonging in their schools and communities.
Besley said the statement sent a “general message of denial” to Rainbow students and those who questioned their identity.
“They need to get rid of that statement because as long as they have it in place, I just don’t see how they can truly live up to their obligation to create a safe and welcoming school where student well-being rainbows. sky is taken care of.”
According to her, the fact that the parents sign the statement could “create a real fear among young people to come out and share their identity with the parents”.
‘Each school should examine its responsibilities under the Education and Training Act, which is to provide a school free from discrimination and to promote the welfare of pupils.’
She said there are ways for Christian schools, such as Bethlehem College, to maintain their religious beliefs and student welfare side by side.
InsideOUT has offered resources to help Christian schools create inclusive rainbow environments while maintaining a special character.
Bethlehem College board chairman Paul Shakes said the school was founded to provide Bible-based Christian education.
That’s why many parents chose to send their children to 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 “overtly” expressed through pledges such as the Statement of Creed, which included a “well-recognized 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 Lockhart’s comments appeared to misunderstand New Zealand law as well as the purpose of a statement of belief.
Shakes said in his opinion: “New Zealand law, including the Human Rights Act, does not give anyone the right to force others to adopt their beliefs, which Mr Lockhart appears to be attempting in this affair.”
He also said the school strives to “live our beliefs in a loving and respectful way”. And students who needed support in any area were encouraged to speak to school counsellors.
He cited the most recent Education Review Bureau report which said the college’s distinctive Christian character “contributes to a strong sense of well-being and belonging for students.”
“It should be noted that our Christian beliefs support and enhance the health and well-being of our students.”
Ministry of Education Te Tai Whenua (Central) Hautū (Chief) Jocelyn Mikaere said he had received “a few” complaints about the “discriminatory nature” of the point of belief statement.
He was working with both the Bethlehem College board and owners to address it, she said.
She said the statement was not in the integration agreement that Bethlehem College made with the education minister.
Bethlehem College was founded in 1988 by the Christian Education Trust. The trust includes early childhood centres, a combined primary and secondary school, an English language school and tertiary education leading to a degree in teaching and guidance.