Australian Jewish body denies Coalition for Marriage claim ultra-Orthodox London school was threatened with closure
Thursday 5 October 2017 12.33 AEDT
Last modified on Thursday 5 October 2017 13.28 AEDT
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry has refuted “factually inaccurate” claims a Jewish school in the UK was threatened with closure over its teachings about sexuality and marriage.
The case of the ultra-Orthodox Vishnitz girls school in north London has been cited repeatedly by the Australian Christian Lobby’s director, Lyle Shelton, and used as recently as Thursday by the Liberal senator Zed Seselja, as an example of a school forced to change its teaching because of the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
In a statement released on Wednesday the ECAJ rejected the claim that Vishnitz “lost its accreditation as a school because it would not cease teaching its version of sexuality and marriage after same-sex marriages became legal in March 2014”.
“In point of fact the school found itself in difficulties with Ofsted [the UK school regulatory authority] well before March 2014 because it was said to have failed various other legal standards arising under earlier legislation,” it said.
“For example, the school was found to have failed to have policies in place that would require it to report incidents of abuse and neglect.”
In October 2016 and May 2017 Ofsted found Vishnitz girls school had failed to meet standards that education must “encourage respect” for others based on protected characteristics in the UK Equality Act 2010, including sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
The school also failed its inspections for a number of other reasons including facility maintenance, lack of a medical room and poor labelling of suitable drinking water.
In May 2017 Ofsted concluded the issues had been fixed, including lack of child protection policies, but not the issue of encouraging respect.
Shelton has repeatedly cited Vishnitz, arguing it has been penalised because it “doesn’t want to teach their children these radical concepts” and noting it failed inspections after same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK to suggest it was a consequence of that change.
ECAJ said the 2010 law predated marriage equality in the UK and “explicitly provides that the school has the right to teach its own beliefs about sexuality and marriage in a way that does not disrespect LGBTQI people”.
Explaining why it issued the statement, ECAJ said that during the debate about legal recognition of same-sex marriage “verbal abuse should be condemned and factual inaccuracies corrected”.
Seselja told Sky News that in the UK “there is a Jewish school which is being threatened with being shut down because it doesn’t want to teach the gender theory that we’ve seen in some schools here in Australia”.
“I’ve seen the examples in the UK – where there are religious schools told they have to change their teaching in order to keep their registration.”
Seselja said he was concerned about religious freedom and parental choice but refused to nominate what changes to law he would like to see, arguing the burden should be on those arguing for same-sex marriage not opponents to devise “protections”.
At the National Press Club on 13 September the Liberal party’s vice-president, Karina Okotel, said: “Three months ago in England, a Jewish school failed three inspections as they didn’t teach about homosexuality and gender diversity and, therefore, as same-sex marriage is legal, the students were not being provided a full understanding of fundamental British values and that school now faces closure.”
None of the Ofsted reports mentioned teaching about marriage
A spokeswoman for the Coalition for Marriage acknowledged that the Equality Act came into force before same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK but said the school had only failed its inspections after the marriage law changed.
“This timeline proves, rather than contradicts, the claim by Coalition for Marriage that a change in the marriage law has a direct impact on the education of children, specifically requiring LGBTIQ issues to be taught in primary school,” she said.
The Coalition for Marriage spokeswoman said the ECAJ “had previously issued a statement asserting that there is no threat to religious freedom at all if a change to the Marriage Act was to occur”.
This was “in contrast” to a Senate committee inquiry on the same-sex marriage bill exposure draft and “any other serious commentators on this issue”, she said.
Guardian Australia has contacted Seselja, Shelton and Okotel.