A Canadian dad asked for advance notice of the mention of horoscopes, wizardry, and moral relativism so he could shield his kids from "false teachings" at school, in a court case now being used by the "no" campaign to suggest gay sex education will become mandatory in Australia if same-sex marriage is legalised.
Steve Tourloukis, a father of two and member of the Greek Orthodox Church, is positioned as a crusader who fought and lost against "radical gay sex education" in Canada in two videos released by the "no" campaign.
"I realise how naïve I was back in those days, but you wouldn’t think that two men or two women getting married would have such a profound effect on the education system, but I assure you that it has," he says in the video.
But the court records for his case tell a more nuanced story — centred on whether or not it was reasonable for a public school to accommodate Tourloukis's laundry list of objectionable discussion points in the classroom, which stretched to learning about the environment, astrology, and the notion of people having different values systems.
Tourloukis also objected to any mention or portrayal of same-sex relationships or transgender people in the classroom that did not position such people and relationships as unnatural and unhealthy.
The records also show that Tourloukis did have the right to remove his children from sex education classes and was told this, but instead opted to sue the school after it refused to accommodate his full list.
He eventually lost the case when Justice Robert Reid found the school had acted reasonably and declined to make an order asserting Tourloukis's parental authority.
In 2010, Tourloukis provided a document to his kids' school principal asking for advance notice of when certain topics would be mentioned in class so he could remove his children. The list read:
- Values neutral education – instruction of students in “moral relativism” and principles of situational ethics. This “ism” is a central tenet of the religion of “Secular Humanism”.
- Occultic principles and practices – witchcraft, black magic, spirit guides, Satanism, wizardry, new age, channeling, astrology, horoscopes, psychic powers and other such practices, which are contradictory to Judeo-Christian principles.
- Environmental Worship – placing environmental issues/concerns above the value of Judeo-Christian principles and human life.
- Instruction in sex education.
- Discussion or portrayals of sexual conduct that we determine to be unnatural/unhealthy (anal sex, oral sex, sadism, masochism, fetishes, bondage, etc.).
- Discussions or portrayals of homosexual/bisexual conduct and relationships and/or transgenderism as natural, healthy.
- Teaching about or the provision of birth-control drugs and devices, without parental consent.
- Teaching that abortion is an acceptable method of birth control and that life does not begin at conception.
- Encouraging the acceptance of infanticide or euthanasia.
- Providing a false sense of security with regard to the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board denied Tourloukis's request, advising that he could have his children withdrawn from sex education classes, but it was unable to meet the full demands of his list.
"The board referred to its ability to excuse students based on parental request from the sex education segment of the curriculum and invited the applicant to advise the school authorities accordingly," the decision states.
"[Tourloukis] responded by alleging that the denial of the requested religious accommodation was a violation of board policies, and that it constituted discrimination against his family. He repeated the request that his children be excused from all instruction relating to human sexuality and sexual orientation."
So Tourloukis took the matter to court, asking a judge to a) declare that he had the final authority over the education of his children, and b) order the school board to accommodate his extensive requests.
At a hearing in June 2016, the board said that by denying the request, it had indeed impinged on Tourloukis's religious freedom, but the decision was a "proportional balancing" of competing rights.
"It is the board’s position that withdrawing the applicant’s children from classes containing portions of the curriculum that the applicant found objectionable would be contrary to the values of inclusion and student wellbeing, and could lead to feelings of exclusion or marginalisation by students, including the applicant’s children," the court decision reads.
What did the judge find?
Justice Robert Reid found that it wasn't appropriate for him to declare ultimate parental authority as it wasn't justified by the facts of the case, nor would it serve a useful purpose.
He pointed out that parents still have obligations under the law with regards to education — for instance, it's an offence to fail to send your child to school at all.
Reid also found the board had acted reasonably and said the failure to provide advance notice was, in part, a "practical response".
"The list of objectionable subject matter provided by the applicant was extensive," he said. "It would be extremely difficult for teachers to be sufficiently familiar with the variety of concerns raised by parents for individual students so as to advise in advance of their mention in lessons."
But the more important aspect, Reid wrote, was the prospect of Tourloukis's kids getting pulled out of class.
He cited chief justice Beverley McLachlin in a 2002 decision about books featuring same-sex parented families:
"Exposure to some cognitive dissonance is arguably necessary if children are to be taught what tolerance itself involves. As my colleague points out, the demand for tolerance cannot be interpreted as the demand to approve of another person’s beliefs or practices. When we ask people to be tolerant of others, we do not ask them to abandon their personal convictions. We merely ask them to respect the rights, values and ways of being of those who may not share those convictions. The belief that others are entitled to equal respect depends, not on the belief that their values are right, but on the belief that they have a claim to equal respect regardless of whether they are right. Learning about tolerance is therefore learning that other people’s entitlement to respect from us does not depend on whether their views accord with our own. Children cannot learn this unless they are exposed to views that differ from those they are taught at home."
Reid wrote that the bulk of legislation and judicial comment had favoured inclusion over isolation in the context of a public education system.
"The board prefers to support the values of inclusion and equality over individual religious accommodation, in this instance. In doing so, the Board has proportionally balanced the competing charter protections."
Reid noted Tourloukis still had options to satisfy his religious obligations — but that his specific demands may not be possible to accommodate in the public school system.
"That system, by definition, must provide education to the broadest possible cross-section of the population. Independent schools, whether faith-based or otherwise, may be available as is, of course, the option of homeschooling," Reid wrote.
"To the extent that the concern about 'false teachings' outweighs other advantages of the public school system, the applicant may need to seek such other alternatives."
The videos featuring Tourloukis presented by the Coalition for Marriage have been shared across Australia thousands of times. It only references the sex education aspect of his case, and claims that same-sex marriage in Canada led to "radical gay sex education" programs.
Australian education minister Simon Birmingham said it was "patently ridiculous" to assert that same-sex marriage would lead to changes in the curriculum.
A recent fact check by emeritus professor Bill Louden, the man who conducted a government review of the Safe Schools Coalition in 2016, also found there is no link between the Marriage Act and the Australian curriculum.