Supporting the independent education community

Historic IEU anti-discrimination case revisited

Quoted below is an extract from the article written by Paul Murphy in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 November. 
Click through to read the full article.

While debate rages about the extent that non-government, religious-based schools can discriminate against teachers because of their sexual preference, we have a lot to learn from history and how religious employers have approached this issue.

In the annals of industrial law in Australia, one of the most important cases was determined by the then Industrial and Arbitration Commission of NSW in 1975. This was an appeal by the NSW Independent Teachers Association on behalf of Haysell Tennant to overturn a decision by St Aloysius College at Kirribilli to sack her...

The Full Court of the Industrial Commission overruled the earlier decision and reinstated Ms Tennant. The court held that the failure to give reasons was in itself unfair and this formed the basis of its decision.

The significance of this case cannot be underrated as the legal principle has been subsequently incorporated in legislation including the Fair Work Act 2009 unfair dismissal provisions, including the requirement for a valid reason for the termination of employment and whether that reason has been communicated to the employee.

However, this case was much more than a legal precedent. In short, St Aloysius believed that Ms Tennant was a lesbian, an allegation that was not put to her and to which she could not respond. She firmly believed that her competency as a teacher was what should have been judged and not perceptions or suspicions about her private life. She believed this was none of the school’s business.

When the Full Court in the NSW appeal invited the school to give its reasons, it declined to do so. After the reinstatement of Ms Tennant, the school directed her to perform duties away from the classroom and to minimise or have no contact with students and parents. She was “sent to Coventry”.

Ms Tennant, after some months of enduring this treatment, took her own life.

For her determination to challenge her unfair dismissal, Haysell Tennant is a genuine hero. Her story also has a lot to tell us about how much and how little has changed.

It is not good enough to allow religious schools to exempt or remove themselves from the law. Religious schools should not have the right to terminate individuals because they form a view that a teacher is living a lifestyle inconsistent with the school’s values - or is living this life too close to the school's grounds. Forty-three years have passed since the Tennant case, and although the laws have improved, it appears that the conduct of a number of religious schools has not. The fact is, the Tennant case could be repeated today with exactly the same outcome.


The IEU, previously known as the Independent Teachers Association (ITA), is proud to have taken on and won this case, and many others like it over our many years of operation. It is an issue we have extensive experience in and take extremely seriously.


Thank you to the author of this article, Paul Murphy, for bringing attention once more to this important story, the details of which have become no less tragic with age.


The IEU has always, and will always, stand up for the rights of teachers to live their lives with dignity and respect and without fear of persecution.