In a podcast interview earlier this year, Reverend Geoff Lin admitted that his Living Hope SA group (with ‘SA’ referring to South Australia) shies away from publicly advertising some of its events about sexuality these days. Even within the church environment, the group gets “pushback” to its work, he said.
“Look, it is fair to say, we’re conscious that the landscape has changed… Having said that, we will still try and raise these issues because we think that there is a better story, a different narrative to offer, and we want that to be made available for both Christians and unbelievers to hear.”
So what’s there to tippy-toe around?
Living Hope SA provides pastoral support for Christians “who are struggling with same-sex attraction” and for their families, Reverend Lin told the podcast. These families experience a “great cost”, he claimed, for having members who identify as LGBTIQ.
Living Hope SA’s website states that “…every Christian experiences brokenness in all areas of our lives, including our relationships in general and our sexuality in particular, so that the wounds we all carry require God’s transforming intervention”.
While Living Hope SA may be cautious about raising awareness of its work in the wider public, earlier this year it found a willing partner in the Christian Schools Australia (CSA) network to help share the word.
In March, CSA’s Director of Public Policy Mark Spencer interviewed Reverend Lin about Living Hope SA’s work for the podcast entitled Living in (Sexual) Hope. As the official podcast for the network, it was distributed to more than 70,000 students across Australia via the CSA website.
CSA has previously argued that a Christian school should have the right to “disengage” a student and their family to protect the “religious character” of the school. It made that statement in a joint parliamentary submission with Adventist Schools Australia to the Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief in 2016/17.
However, amid the 2018 public uproar about religious schools being able to expel gay students under exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, CSA declared that it had no interest in removing such students.
In the past week, CSA has ramped up pressure on the Morrison government not to accede to the demands of ‘moderate’ Liberals to fast-track the removal of exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act. These exemptions, which the Prime Minister and Labor promised to act on more than 1100 days ago, allow faith-based schools to expel LGBTIQ students and fire teachers for reasons including sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy.
Mr Spencer – the CSA podcast host – told The Guardian last week that CSA would no longer support the government’s Religious Discrimination Bill if changes to the Sex Discrimination Act were part of the same package.
In a statement on the CSA website on Thursday, he blasted “shady back-room deals” in the government that would “wipe out the ability” of Christian schools to teach in accordance with their faith.
CSA claimed that the efforts of moderate Liberal Party members to have the religious exemptions removed from the Sex Discrimination Act in return for their support for the Religious Discrimination Bill “expose the real agenda of those opposing the Bill”.
For some advocating for LGBTIQ rights, however, the swift reaction from conservative religious groups such as CSA and the Australian Christian Lobby to the deal between moderate Liberal politicians and the government was even more revealing.
In a letter to the editor published in the West Australian on Saturday, Brian Greig, a spokesperson for just.equal and a former Senator for Western Australia, argued that religious conservatives had “finally shown their hand”.
“The deal ensured that the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act would be amended to prevent religious schools from discriminating against LGBT teachers and students,” he wrote.
“When news of this reached the Christian Lobby, it went ballistic. It withdrew support for the Bill, denounced the Government and demanded the right to discriminate, despite saying it does not. The cloak of camouflage has been ripped away, the real agenda now exposed.
“This Bill was never about protecting the religious from discrimination. It’s about giving them the privilege to discriminate against others.”
A matter of change
The distribution of the CSA podcast episode raised concerns among some in the network who have been wanting the schools to modernise their views on homosexuality and provide appropriate support for children experiencing sexuality and gender issues.
In the podcast interview, Reverend Lin said that, for Living Hope SA, the Bible’s teaching about sexuality was “pretty clear in that the only appropriate context for sexual activity is within heterosexual marriage”.
“Any other kind of activity…, be it heterosexual or homosexual, is not the way in which God has designed us or in God’s plan for our lives. I guess that’s the starting point,” he said.
“The question about ‘can people change?’, well, at one level, yes, we all can change under the power of the Holy Spirit.
“There’s often a lot of discussion about, ‘Can Christians be changed in their sexual orientation?’ That’s a hard question to answer because at least, evidentially, sometimes people do change their sexual preference or orientation or attraction, if I can use those phrases, but sometimes people don’t.”
One person with a long-time involvement in CSA told the Rationale magazine that they were appalled that the network had promoted the work of Living Hope SA to thousands of students and parents throughout its schools.
“Within the Christian schooling network, there are messages from the very top to every single principal in this network around Australia that, ‘If you’re gay, either suppress your sexuality or relationship, or change,” the contact said.
This person also said it was concerning that Living Hope SA appeared, based on comments from Reverend Lin in the podcast interview, to be working with students in CSA schools in South Australia.
There is concern, too, about how CSA’s active discrimination against LGBTIQ teachers has a flow-on impact on students who are dealing with issues of sexuality or gender identity.
“I think you have to follow a theological position to its only logical conclusion and then wrestle with it. If it’s disorderly and you’re broken, then you need healing or you need to stop doing it,” the contact said.
“I think it’s important to note that this worldview, when it’s enacted into policy and practice, can only lead to conversion or suppression strategy. That truly honours the idea that homesexuality is a form of human brokenness.
“And the question has to be asked: if that is the case, at what level are these schools advocating for it?”
In the podcast interview, Reverend Lin rejected the harmful conversion practices of the past and blamed “terribly informed Christians” for using them in counselling on matters of same-sex attraction and gender identity.
Likewise, Mr Spencer said that CSA rejected past conversion practices that were “truly torture” and that “should never have happened”, and said the network did not advocate “those practices and any other”.
In 2019, CSA joined other Christian school networks in making clear to a Queensland parliament inquiry that they rejected “abhorrent” conversion therapy practices of the mid-20th century. But they opposed the proposed laws – later passed by the state parliament – banning suppression and conversion practices.
By providing a platform to promote Living Hope’s SA pastoral work and lobbying government to delay or prevent changes to the Sex Discrimination Act, CSA is likely only putting itself at odds with many in its own school communities.
As social researcher Neil Francis pointed out in part 1 of his Religiosity in Australia series, Australians overwhelmingly – 82 per cent, according to a YouGov/Galaxy poll of 2018 – oppose exemptions that allow the expulsion of gay and lesbian students. Also, Francis reported that 79% opposed religious schools having the ability to fire teachers for marrying a person of the same sex.
Rationale magazine’s contact within the CSA network said many parents who send their children to CSA schools held different views to the network’s executives but felt powerless to push for change.
“If the vast majority of families, students and staff in the schools had the opportunity to have a voice and an opinion, I think they would say, ‘This is not what we want. This is not a Christian worldview or a Christian message that we want to espouse.’ But, at the moment, there’s just no freedom of expression,” the contact said.
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash