Religion Is Never An Acceptable Excuse For Verbally Abusing Children

When a child is transgender, people seem to lose any sort of rational perspective.
11/15/2017 12:26 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2017

Joshua Sutcliffe is a 27-year-old evangelical pastor in the UK who had, until recently, been a teacher at a school in Oxford. He has admitted to repeatedly and intentionally using the wrong pronouns when addressing a transgender boy (assigned female at birth, identifies and lives as male) in his class. He was suspended after the boys’ parents learned of this and reported it to the school. He is also accused of pushing his religious beliefs during math lessons.

Mr. Sutcliffe defended himself by claiming that his religious beliefs demand that he uses feminine pronouns when referring to the student, and that his suspension is “political correctness gone mad.” Sutcliffe also believes being suspended for his actions infringes on his freedom of religion under UK law. British tabloids and right-wing media have been quick to echo his complaints.

The problem is, if his behavior was directed at anyone besides a transgender student we wouldn’t be having this argument; there would be near universal consensus that that he should be strung up by his toenails and never allowed anywhere near children again. But because this child is transgender, people seem to lose any sort of rational perspective.

Let’s look at how we would regard his behaviors in any other context.

For instance, suppose he kept calling a boy in his class with long hair “she” to express his displeasure with the child’s choice in hair styles, and to humiliate the student. Imagine how people would react. Now imagine how the public would react if his response was, “Boys with long hair violate my religious beliefs about male and female gender roles. I’ll start using male pronouns when the student gets a proper boys haircut.”

Of course, if Mr. Sutcliffe did this to a cisgender student, it would clearly be seen as a form of verbal abuse. He’d be pilloried for it, lampooned for having such outdated notions about gender, and promptly sacked for using his religious beliefs to single out a student for verbal abuse.

But since the child is transgender, we’re all expected to be ok with it.

One of the central tenets of Mr. Sutcliffe’s religion is that everyone who doesn’t follow Christ the way he does goes to hell, and that it is his purpose on the planet to spread his version of Christianity to as many people as possible to save them from eternal damnation. “Speaking the truth with love” and “love the sinner, hate the sin,” are common phrases used to describe how evangelicals are obligated to tell people they are damned unless they repent.

Given the clear obligations of Mr. Sutcliffe’s religion, suppose he kept reminding a Hindu student during math lessons that it is his belief that she is a demon worshiper who is going to hell, and that other students should avoid consorting with her lest they share her eternal fate. Would the public be nearly so tolerant of Mr. Sutcliffe’s introduction of religion into his classroom, and particularly at the expense of a single student?

Of course not; the public would storm the school with pitchforks and torches if he wasn’t immediately sent packing. This clearly infringes on the student’s own freedom of religion and religious identity.

Clearly, the transgender boy, and his parents, do not believe in a religion that condemns transgender people. But here we are again again. When the student is transgender (and of a religious belief that being transgender is not sinful), we seem perfectly willing to entertain the notion that a teacher has the right to impose their religious beliefs on a child incapable of escaping or defending themselves.

Which brings me to my last point: power imbalance. Mr. Sutcliffe is an adult, male school teacher. This is a child. If Mr. Sutcliffe were saying deliberately offensive things to literally any other student in his class, there would be ZERO expectation that the child should just toughen up, defend themselves, or learn to live with it.

Children are not capable of defending themselves from verbal abuse (and it is abuse, both towards their sense of self and their religious beliefs) by an adult authority figure. Especially when this goes on day after day. Anyone who suggests that a child can protect themselves from abuses of power like this, or expect a child to be able to, should never be left alone with a minor again.

But because the student is transgender, they are expected to “stop being a liberal snowflake” and deal with it on their own.

If you haven’t caught on to what’s going on here yet, let me reiterate. It is wrong to humiliate and call out a student by deliberately misgendering them. It is wrong to force your religious beliefs on a student. It is wrong to expect a child to defend themselves from verbal abuse by an adult authority figure. These are universal truths, yet social conservatives seem determined to make an exception where transgender children are concerned.

Britain has a long history of looking askance at India’s caste system. Given what I’m seeing from across the pond right now, though, I would think it’s envy. The press there certainly seems to be eager to create a class of untouchables who can be abused at will by Evangelical Brahmin.

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