Faith schools need not lose their ethos, but teachers must be employed on competence

Cynthia Chircop and Joe Grima: An Equality Act should stop discrimination, not encourage it

Cynthia Chircop and Joe Grima are activists of the Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement (MGRM)

Readers may have noticed how every now and then, an occasional article or opinion piece pops up on their news feeds about an Equality Bill. These articles took various forms, discussing how parents are having their right to choosing a Catholic school for their children taken away, or how teachers will be censored and denied their right to be Catholic in class.

Worryingly, these articles have now taken the form of a push for a conscientious objection clause.

This strategy is nothing but an evolution of the divorce debate. Gone are the billboards and the in-your-face pictures condemning people to eternal damnation. Instead, the lobby has reorganised itself and launched subtler media and lobby campaigns, which caught even us by surprise. This does not make the lobby any less dangerous.

What is the Equality Bill then? Years in the making, the Bill seeks to gather together the equality provisions that already exist in Maltese law, in order to unequivocally protect characteristics such as age, belief, political opinion, nationality, language, gender expression or gender identity, and sexual orientation from any form of discrimination. This includes protections when accessing goods and services, in financial services, in employment and access to employee’s associations amongst others.

In practice, a shop owner cannot choose not to serve a Jewish person, a business cannot demote an employee because of their political opinion, a gym owner cannot ask a black man to leave for no reason other than the colour of his skin, a pregnant woman cannot be denied a promotion she deserves, and a trans person cannot be turned down when buying health insurance. It also means that a church school cannot refuse to employ a gay man, and it cannot make a trans employee redundant solely because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

This last part does not seem to have gone down well with church schools.

We say this, because in recent articles, church schools have made it clear that they are pushing for a conscientious objection clause to be inserted in the Equality Bill. What that would do, is give church schools a very special provision in the law that would allow them to effectively become immune to the effects of this law – a license to discriminate. The effects could theoretically span from selecting teachers based on their religious beliefs, superseding competence and qualifications, to making teachers redundant if they were to start divorce proceedings against their ex-spouses.

This is all being sold to teachers and teachers’ associations under claims that the current form of the Bill will prevent teachers from expressing their Catholic views in their lessons, turning the entire argument on its head and making it look like this entire push is being done to protect teachers themselves.

Interestingly, Article 6 of the Bill already states that church schools are allowed to enforce ‘policies for teachers within educational establishments, the ethos of which is based on a belief, creed or religion, and the requirement for teachers to act in good faith and in line with the said policies’. Therefore, what the Bill does is to not allow a school to fire a teacher who is divorcing, but the teacher cannot actively promote divorce, on the basis that it goes against the ethos of the school. Incidentally, we have nothing against that particular clause.

The Catholic lobby is not seeking to develop Article 6. In the various articles that started appearing in the media, it was never mentioned that this clause was insufficient, or that it needed to be worded better. Instead, the push was unequivocally for a conscientious objection. What is being forgotten is that the law cannot make a distinction between religions. The church schools’ own proposal would give unlimited discriminatory powers to educational institutions set up by religious groups such as Komunita’ Ġesu Salvatur – which the Church previously endorsed – but from which it disassociated itself recently.

It would be unfair not to mention that, with a few exceptions, members of the LGBTIQ+ community are full of praise for Church schools. The law should however be forward-looking, and never fall victim to assumptions and a false sense of security.

It is dangerous to assume that such a clause would apply only to Catholic Schools; other religions do exist and like Catholicism, they have various denominations including a few extremist ones that preach intolerance. Legislators should never assume that the moderate Roman Catholic ethos of current church schools will remain moderate forever. If a school with extreme religious beliefs is set up, it will be legally able to discriminate as it sees fit. Following that, if the law was rewritten to satisfy the discriminatory selectivity of Catholic schools, it would be discriminatory towards other religions.

This is not to mention the dangers of giving any schools the right to pick away at the National Curriculum Framework for other subjects to substitute with their values, even if they are potentially not factual or scientific, which will undo the holistic exposure that has been achieved in schools.

It is also the very nature of conscientious objection clauses, away from the subject of church schools, that is dangerous. We have already seen the Medical Council try to sneak in a similar clause that allows a medical practitioner to ‘register an objection’ without fully safeguarding the rights of the patient.

What if, then, a health worker registers an objection when asked to treat a patient with disability because they believe that he is a burden on society? Should doctors who believe that sex should take place between married couples be allowed to refuse to treat an unmarried pregnant woman? Should a doctor refuse to give a referral for IVF treatment to a lesbian couple because they believe same sex couples should not have children? Can therefore a teacher be allowed to teach that evolution is a myth, or that the earth is flat?

More dangerously, should a teacher be allowed to suggest that women should never refuse their husbands’ advances, and that rape between married couples does not exist?

Clearly, we do not expect Church and other faith schools to abandon their ethos. Church schools have a role in our education system, which is constructive and of importance to parents and students. Nevertheless, just like any other employer in Malta, educational and otherwise, the employment process is expected to be based solely on competence, qualifications and experience. Nothing more, and nothing less.