[China Daily] Ruffling feathers

Ruffling feathers
China Daily
Published March 7, accessed March 8, 2014
Simon Parry

A Christian school in Hong Kong has banned gay teachers and made staff sign a ‘Morality Contract’ in a case both activists and the Equal Opportunities Commission say shows an urgent need for tougher anti-discrimination laws in Hong Kong, reports Simon Parry.

As the expatriate teacher filled out an application form for a position in the art department of the International Christian School in Sha Tin, an oddly-worded section titled “Staff Guidelines” caught her eye.

Employees, it declared, should be above reproach in areas of “sexual orientation and behavior, marital and parental relationships, personal finances, addictive substances, and leisure activities”.

Any contraventions of what is known within the school as the “Morality Contract”, the guidelines said, would be dealt with “in accordance with biblical principles Matthew 18: 15-19)” – a gospel tract suggesting unrepentant sinners should be cast out like “a heathen”.

When the applicant emailed the school asking for clarification, she received a reply in somewhat blunter, unbiblical language from Sandy Burnett, administration and recruitment coordinator at the 1,200-pupil school, where fees range from HK$95,200 to HK$129,300 per annum.

“Basically, we look for good Christian role models for our students,” Burnett wrote. “We do not condone same-sex relationships, extramarital relationships, (or) couples of opposite sex living together outside of marriage.

“As for leisure activities: we do not condone gambling, drunkenness, illegal drug taking/selling, basically any activities which detract from giving God glory. Smoking on our property or in students’ presence is also not appropriate.”

The art teacher, who was invited to apply for the job by a recruitment agency, was appalled. “I was incensed, and didn’t think this kind of discrimination could happen in Hong Kong,” she said.

“It saddens me to think they can get away with this when they should be teaching their students tolerance. If they want to say you can’t live with your partner that’s one thing but to say you can’t be gay is unacceptable. It’s something people can’t control. It’s like saying you can’t be black.”

She asked: “What happens if there is a gay child at their school? How are they going to feel if they grow up feeling they are born wrong, and made to feel guilty for falling in love with someone of the same sex?

“Teachers don’t have to apply for a job like this, but those kids can’t help the fact that their parents have put them there and they are subjected to this kind of attitude.”

In many countries, barring gay applicants from a job would be against the law. However, in Hong Kong – as the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) complains – there is legislation against sex, race and disability discrimination but none against gay discrimination.

It is high time for a change, according to John Erni, chairperson of the Pink Alliance. “This case makes it very evident that Hong Kong needs an anti-discrimination law on the grounds of sexuality and people’s sexual preferences,” he argued.

“This woman cannot take the case to the EOC because there is no law or grounds to make a claim. It is frightening that an educational institution has this blatant discrimination policy written into their hiring procedure but there is nothing in the law people can take it to.

Education principles

The effect of the beliefs on children at the International Christian School was the main concern, Erni said. “Education is intended to train students to be as open-minded and cosmopolitan in their world view as possible, but this type of education closes people’s minds,” he said.

“It encourages people to be discriminatory and with students they are so easily affected by what teachers say or what the school’s message is. This sort of thing should be banned outright in schools because it goes against any educational theory we know of in the modern world.”

Erni said the case echoed a previous case involving a group of Christian schools in Hong Kong which distributed pamphlets to students telling them homosexuality was wrong and advocating conversion therapy for youngsters who were “confused” about their sexuality.

Anshuman Das, who helped produce a series of films last year called ‘I Am Me’ aimed at students in Hong Kong who are bullied for being gay, said the International Christian School’s stance undermined Hong Kong’s international reputation.

“We are supposed to be Asia’s World City,” he said. “Hong Kong has an international population. We are expected to be more tolerant and to embrace people from different backgrounds.

“I believe the younger generation are much more open to different orientations but it is the older generation – especially the religious ones – who are holding on to the stuff fed to them by extremists in the US. They have exported the same ideas to countries like Uganda but it’s shocking they should reach Hong Kong.”

Gay activist and Pink Dollar app founder Paul Ramscar, who is currently helping bring a global celebrity-led anti-discrimination campaign called NOH8 to Hong Kong, said he was “shocked and appalled” to hear of the case.

“This just shows how very much behind the times we are and how much more work we have to do in Hong Kong before we catch up with the rest of the world,” he said.

Right to beliefs

When China Daily visited the International Christian School to ask about the “Morality Contract”, Sandy Burnett said: “We are a Christian school. On our website it’s very plain what our mission and vision is. It’s on our application form so it’s very obvious what our belief system is.”

She declined requests to explain and justify the school’s moral position in detail and, referring to the job applicant, would only say: “The lady in question has a right to her beliefs. We have a right to our beliefs.”

Later, in an emailed response to an interview request, the school’s headmaster John Nelson wrote: “At this time, I decline to provide any comments.”

How much longer the school – which says on its website it endeavors to educate “the whole child – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual” – is free to practice such forms of discrimination in recruitment, is in question, according to EOC spokesman Sam Ho.

There are currently anti-discrimination laws in Hong Kong outlawing discrimination against people on the grounds of sex, race, disability or family status, but gay discrimination does not breach any existing laws.

There is a voluntary Code of Practice against Discrimination in Employment on the Ground of Sexual Orientation issued by the government which the EOC said “aims to facilitate self-regulation on the part of employers and employees in eliminating discriminatory practices”.

Ho said in a statement: “The EOC has all along been advocating for legislation to protect members of the public from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The EOC is currently making preparation for launching a systematic study to identify discrimination, harassment, and vilification encountered by sexual minorities in the public domain, including employment, education and training, social interaction, and services and facilities.

“Based on the study findings, the EOC will seek public views through questionnaires and focus group discussions on measures to tackle this issue, including legislating against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The job applicant who received Burnett’s explanation of the International Christian School’s “Morality Code” is not herself gay, but she withdrew her application in disgust and decided to make the issue public.

“If I didn’t say anything about it, I would be just as guilty as this school,” she said. “When I told my fellow teachers about it, they couldn’t believe it. They asked: ‘What century are we living in?’

“The school seems to take the attitude that being gay is something you can fix – that if you read the right books and pray to God enough you can get rid of those gay demons.

“I wouldn’t want the children I teach to be exposed to that. No school should have the right to tell children they don’t belong just because they’re different.”

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