Tasmanian teacher's Catholic school job offer withdrawn to 'avoid religious injury'

Tasmanian teacher’s Catholic school job offer withdrawn to ‘avoid religious injury’

A Tasmanian teacher has had his offer of employment rescinded by a Catholic school in Hobart after the school claimed it was advised the Archbishop could not support his employment due to the teacher’s “relationship arrangement”.

The teacher was offered the position of Deputy Principal – Head of Junior School by St Virgil’s College on September 20, 2021.

He was set to start in the role on January 1 this year.

But in a letter obtained by the ABC dated 26 October 2021, the school’s Acting Principal rescinded the offer of employment and terminated his letter of appointment, “effective immediately”.

The letter reads:

“The College is an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with Catholic doctrines, tenets, beliefs, teaching, principles and practices.

“This means that we are required to conduct ourselves in accordance with Canon Law and that we are required to work in partnership with, and under the mandates of, Catholic Education Tasmania (CET) AND Archbishop Porteous.

“In accordance with the mandates of CET, Canon law and Catholic Doctrines, the College is required to only employ staff in senior leadership positions if they have an active parish life, and if they have a regular relationship, as defined by the Catholic doctrines and Canon law.

“Unfortunately, because of your relationship arrangement, Archbishop [Julian] Porteous has informed us he is unable to support your employment as Deputy Principal – Head of Junior School.”

The letter rescinded the offer of employment and terminated his letter of appointment.(abcnews)

The ABC understands the educator is separated from his wife and is now in a new relationship with a woman.

The letter goes on to say:

“Thus, in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of Catholicism and to enable the college to be conducted in accordance with Catholic principles/CET mandates, I must, in good faith and solely because of your relationship arrangement, rescind the offer of employment and terminate your Letter of Appointment/prospective employment, effective immediately.

“This is an unfortunate and distressing situation for both you and the College. I appreciate your understanding and apologize unreservedly for any stress and anguish this situation may have caused you.”

Recruitment process to be ‘reviewed’

According to its website, St Virgil’s College Hobart is a Catholic school in the Edmund Rice tradition.

“We contribute to the development of young men through education and promote their formation in Christian virtue and conscience,” it says.

“We demonstrate the Church’s commitment to the dignity of the individual, particularly by being called to relationship in community, and committing to make a preferential option of the poor.”

The ABC made contact with the teacher for his reaction to the letter. Through her lawyers, the teacher declined to comment on the matter.

St Virgils’ College Principal said the school worked closely with its governing body Edmund Rice Education Australia to conduct “a thorough and exhaustive search for the best possible candidate for the role”.

“The recruitment process identified a number of high-quality candidates and on 21 September last year one candidate was offered the position of Head of Junior School, but the process was not finalized because the offer was rescinded by EREA following consultation with Catholic Education Tasmania.

“There are still a number of issues involved in the recruitment process which deserve further examination and clarity and EREA and I intend to continue to consult with Catholic Education Tasmania to review this matter.”

Tasmanian Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous sits in his office.
The letter said: “Archbishop Porteous has informed us he is unable to support your employment as Deputy Principal – Head of Junior School.”(ABC News: Annah Fromberg)

When asked for comment, the Archdiocese sent back a short response.

“Thank you for your recent media inquiry. The Archdiocese of Hobart politely declines the opportunity to participate in your story.”

Exclusion on personal relationship basis ‘a stretch’

Experts question whether the withdrawal of the job offer could amount to discrimination.

The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act permits religious schools to discriminate on the basis of a person’s religious belief, their affiliation or religious activity.

Robin Banks looks at the camera.
Ms Banks said the Act did not allow religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of someone’s “personal relationship”.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

But Robin Banks, Tasmania’s former Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, said excluding someone on the basis of their “personal relationship” was not an exception available under the Tasmanian Act.

“We’re all protected on the basis of our personal relationships whether we’re married, in de facto relationships, divorced, single,” Ms Banks said.

“The Act does not allow religious organizations to discriminate on that basis.

“I think there are people that might argue the term ‘religious activity’ might include your personal relationships. That seems a stretch to me.

“I think excluding a person because of their personal relationship from a job, is well and truly within the ambit of protections we have within Tasmania, and I don’t think it fits within the exceptions, the defences.”

Old brick building with signage reading St Virgil's
St Virgil’s College Hobart is a Catholic school in the Edmund Rice tradition, its website said.(ABC News: Rob Reibel)

Some ‘not moving with the times’

Lawyer at Hall-Payne Lawyers, Henry Pill, who specializes in employment law, said Tasmanians could take comfort in the fact that the state’s anti-discrimination laws have firm protections in this area.

“We’ve got some of the broadest protections from discrimination and some of the narrowest exemptions from would-be discriminators,” he said.

He said people were more aware than ever about issues like discrimination in the workplace, but some were still lagging.

“I think that we’re also sadly seeing that some people aren’t moving with the times.

“It’s an extraordinarily dated way to go about doing business… this is the sort of stuff you hear about occurring in the 1950s or the 1960s at the latest. So to hear that it’s happening in this day and age is certainly disheartening.

“If the law isn’t intervening in this kind of situation to protect the rights of workers then I think we do need to have a long, hard look at the law.”

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