Pride protest at Bethlehem College over school's gender and marriage stance

Bay of Plenty Times,
Publish Date
Sat, 25 Jun 2022, 10:10am
The group protesting outside Bethlehem College on Thursday. (Photo / Mead Norton)
The group protesting outside Bethlehem College on Thursday. (Photo / Mead Norton)

Pride protest at Bethlehem College over school's gender and marriage stance

Bay of Plenty Times,
Publish Date
Sat, 25 Jun 2022, 10:10am

A Tauranga mum and daughter have vowed to stand outside Bethlehem College in protest until the school changes its controversial stance on gender and marriage being only between a man and a woman.

In response, Bethlehem board of trustees chair Paul Shakes says the school "fully support[s] their rights to hold and express their beliefs".

This comes as the school says it believes it is adhering to all relevant legislation - including the Human Rights Act.

Heidi Tidmarsh and her daughter Bodhi stood outside Bethlehem College with a "love is love" poster and a pride flag during school drop-off on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Tidmarsh said on Thursday the protest had been "well-received" overall and in her opinion "parents don't want this going on in the school".

However, on Wednesday, one woman said to them: "Don't do that".

The group protesting outside Bethlehem College on Thursday. Photo / Mead Norton

The group protesting outside Bethlehem College on Thursday. Photo / Mead Norton

Tidmarsh said she would be outside the gates every school day between 8.15am and 9am until the school changed its beliefs about gender and removed its Statement of Belief about marriage being between a man and a woman.

She said anyone who wanted to come along was welcome.

"I'm here to support the rainbow community, I believe love is love and not just between a man and a woman," she told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Tidmarsh's 13-year-old daughter, Bodhi, said she wanted to show the LGBTQIA+ community "there are people out there that care" and planned to regularly protest alongside her mother.

Bodhi was not a student at Bethlehem College but said, in her view: "I feel like they [LGBTQIA+ students] should be able to come to school and be treated the same as everyone else."

Tauranga pride advocate Gordy Lockhart joined them on Thursday, saying he wanted to support the pair standing up for what they believed in.

He described the number of toots, waves and thumbs up from passing cars and those driving into the school as "amazing".

Lockhart said his view was subjective but he believed there were a "huge number" of parents and teachers who did not agree with the school's stance on gender and marriage.

"What I think I was particularly impressed by, regardless of the traffic actually passing here - the number of cars that were turning in clearly dropping off kids with thumbs up, smiles and waves."

Shakes said the school supported their rights to hold and express beliefs and "we gave them hot coffee this morning to keep them warm".

"We believe we treat all students fairly and with care. We know that not everyone will agree with our beliefs, but we're thankful we live in a tolerant society where we can hold different beliefs in a respectful and civil manner.

"We note our most recent parent satisfaction survey showed the school community believes the school's Christian character is its greatest strength."

In an opinion column for the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, Shakes said the school had reverted to its original Statement of Belief - which does not include the point with its stance on marriage - while it engaged with the Ministry of Education as a show of good faith.

"We think it important, however, to be completely transparent with everyone about the fact that our Christian beliefs, including about marriage, will not change."

College believes it is adhering to human rights legislation

Bethlehem College believes it is adhering to all relevant legislation - including the Human Rights Act - in its stance on marriage and gender.

Earlier this month, the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend revealed the school was under fire from LGBTQIA+ advocates who say its view on marriage is "discriminatory".

The school's Statement of Belief contains 13 points an enrolling student's parent or caregiver must read and acknowledge "that these statements summarise key beliefs of the Christian Education Trust, and underpin the School's Special Character".

The last point is: "Marriage is an institution created by God in which one man and one woman enter into an exclusive relationship intended for life, and that marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations."

The ministry said this point was added without its knowledge and "must be removed" and it could consider "formal intervention". The school and the ministry met in May to discuss this.

The Bay of Plenty Times later reported on a leaked working document outlining the school's stance on gender which said: "the biological sex of a person is determined at conception to be male or female and their gender identity should align with their biological sex".

The document stated that by agreeing to support the Statement of Special Character, students needed to adhere to practices according to their biological sex, and staff needed to ensure the practices were maintained.

This included using specific pronouns such as his or her, and if a student wished to use a name at school other than their legal name, "it must be a name that the college reasonably considers aligns with their biological sex".

It also included the separate use of male or female toilet facilities or single cubicles, separate male and female accommodation, wearing male and female uniforms and associated uniform policies and regulations, and male and female sports teams.

The school described it as a "working document" and said in response to criticism that it was "not wise or kind" to support children down a path of experimental hormonal and surgical medical interventions.

The school acknowledged "that questions around gender and identity are really difficult and sensitive for people" but said it had a duty to "maintain our special character as a Christian school".

In response to questions from the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend about the college's views on marriage and gender, the Human Rights Commission provided a generalised statement outlining education policy and law.

The statement did not comment specifically on the college's stance but said, under the Human Rights Act, it was unlawful for schools to refuse enrolment or subject students to detrimental treatment on any grounds of discrimination, including sexual orientation and family status.

"Education policy and law also reinforces the right to be free from discrimination."

The statement said legislation provided that State Integrated schools could retain their special character, including giving preferential enrolment to students who have a religious connection to the school.

However, it also stated that a primary objective of boards was to provide a physically and emotionally safe place for all students and staff and to give effect to relevant student rights, including the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993.

The objective was also to take "all reasonable steps to eliminate racism, stigma, bullying, and any other forms of discrimination within the school".

The commission broadly supported a school's right to maintain and express its religious beliefs and special character.

"However, we would be concerned if any actions had an exclusionary effect on parents and children because of their ideological views about marriage," the commission said.

The commission hoped school environments supported the teaching of unique beliefs while not making these "prohibitive to people's ideological views" and hoped schools welcomed all students and families, including those within the LGBTQIA+ community.

The commission was developing and collating resources for educational, religious, and cultural settings to help institutions hold "respectful and safe conversations" with relevant communities.

It hoped to work in these settings to "deepen our understanding of these issues" as part of its broader education and prevention programme under the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation.

"The safety and voices of rainbow people, with support from their loved ones, will be central to this work.

"The Human Rights Commission, Te Kāhui Tika Tangata, stands in solidarity with Aotearoa's rainbow communities at this time.

"We all have the right to be treated with fairness and respect, and to be free from discrimination."

Those who believed they had been discriminated against at school could contact the commission for information or to lodge a complaint, the statement said.

Shakes believed the school was adhering to all relevant legislation - including the Human Rights Act and the Education and Training Act.

It was also "continuing to consult a range of resources" which included material published by the Human Rights Commission.

It was mandatory for religious State Integrated schools - such as Bethlehem College - to give preferential enrolment to students who had a connection to the religious special character beliefs of the school, he said.

Shakes said the school strived to provide a "loving and caring environment" for all students as part of implementing its Christian special character.

"And we take seriously our duty to provide every child entrusted to us with the greatest level of care and protection."

A photograph outside the college campus. Photo / George Novak

A photograph outside the college campus. Photo / George Novak

The school's beliefs supported and enhanced the health and wellbeing of students, citing the most recent Education Review Office report that noted the school's special Christian character "contributes to a strong sense of wellbeing and belonging for students".

He acknowledged that for some, Christian beliefs could "feel personally hurtful" but said this was not the school's intention.

"We believe God loves them and desires only the absolute best for them."

People with hurt or concerns from their time at Bethlehem College should get in touch with the school directly "so we can address them with you", he said.

"Our heart and desire is to deal with complaints in an open and honest manner, exercising care to preserve relationships, grace, forgiveness and love."

He said a public letter by the Free Speech Union in support of Bethlehem College had been signed by more than 16,000 people.

"We're encouraged by the many positive messages we're receiving from the public, who support our right to transparently hold our mainstream Christian beliefs," Shakes said.

- by Emma Houpt and Cira Olivier, Bay of Plenty Times