At a megachurch in the affluent Seocho district in southern Seoul, a poster near the entrance calls on churchgoers to oppose Seoul’s ordinance of student rights by signing a petition.
“We are against the Student Human Rights Ordinance which tells kids that homosexuality, transgenderism and pregnancy are a right,” the poster at SaRang Community Church reads.
“By not teaching the scientific fact that people aren’t born with their sexual orientation, gay and transgender youth will increase as well as AIDS,” another poster reads.
The church, whose name translates to “Church of Love” in English, is parroting lines of criticism from conservative-leaning Christian groups like the United Christian Churches of Korea.
“Though some materials were made by our church, some texts were shared in line with the guidelines (from the United Christian Churches of Korea),” a representative at SaRang Community Church said.
“I understand the issue has been raised during a sermon or a homily at other churches too.”
“Certain clauses” in the ordinance of student rights and anti-discrimination legislation have stoked criticism among some churches, the representative explained.
The legally binding ordinance, introduced in 2012, states that students “have a right not to be discriminated against based on gender, religion, age, social background, nationality, race, disabilities as well as their pregnancy status and gender identity.”
It also bans corporal punishment in schools and prohibits dictating the hairstyles of students and how they dress against their will.
The interpretation of the ordinance by some churches has been “out of proportion” and “nothing in the ordinance seeks to encourage” students to become sexual minorities or stifle free speech, said one official at the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
“What the critics are saying focuses on sexual orientation and sexual identity. But we are an education office. We cannot allow students to face discrimination because they are confused about their gender identity. The ordinance is to prevent discrimination and ensure the right to education,” said the official, who specializes in human rights for students.
The ordinance also allows for criticism and debate, he added, except to the extent it becomes hatred.
Controversy around the student rights ordinance is not new. When the authoritative order was first enacted in Seoul a decade ago, it faced opposition from the Education Ministry alongside some teachers and conservative groups.
Similar ordinances exist in other parts of the country, such as Gyeonggi Province and North Jeolla Province. But efforts to pass one in South Gyeongsang Province were thwarted following backlash in 2019.
But as local elections on June 1 approach, with seats for the superintendents of education for 17 cities and provinces up for grabs, rhetoric is becoming overheated.
“Aggressive measures are being introduced in the education sector as of late in the name of ‘student rights,’ confusing the values system (in education),” said the United Christian Churches of Korea in a recent statement titled, “The education superintendent election is a choice for the next generation.”
Two leading conservative-leaning candidates in Seoul have pledged to abolish the ordinance.
“Education on radical feminism and homosexuality hiding in the name of gender equality education will be abolished,” read a campaign promise laid out by leading conservative candidate Cho Jun-hyuk.
Another conservative-leaning candidate, Park Sun-young has also said the ordinance has “reduced teachers from mentors to service-sector jobs.”
Backlash against the school ordinance is part of a wider debate in South Korea over whether the country needs a comprehensive law that defines discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and other factors as crime. Several proposals for an anti-discrimination act have been submitted to the National Assembly, but with churches opposing them and no political commitment from either side of the aisle, they lie dormant.
According to a survey conducted by Dawoom, an LGBTQ advocacy group, nearly 3 in 10 LGBT youths experienced discrimination last year, but only 4 percent filed a report. Among those surveyed, 53 percent said they did not make a complaint because they believed “nothing would change.”
According to a 2020 survey conducted by Seoul’s education office and the International Child Rights Center, over 23 percent of middle school students said they “sometimes or often” experienced discrimination because of their gender. Nearly 15 percent said they faced discrimination for having disabilities, showing that the ordinance of student rights has not eradicated discrimination in school.
Measures like the student rights ordinance and an anti-discrimination law are crucial in sending the message to society of what discrimination is and why it is wrong, said Shim Ki-yong, a steering committee member of Dawoom.
“When anti-discrimination measures are enacted, we will have judicial and political grounds for what is perceived as wrongful discrimination. When we collect more evidence, expectations that minorities can be saved from discrimination will increase and there will be more successful cases,” he said.
In recent years, some progressive religious groups have shown their support for anti-discrimination measures, bucking the trend of many Protestant churches.
In 2021, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism issued a statement calling on politicians to enact an anti-discrimination law.
The Rev. Sim Jong-hyeok, a Jesuit priest and president of Sogang University, the oldest Jesuit institution of higher education in South Korea, also made headlines last year after signing a petition calling on an anti-discrimination act to be passed.
By Yim Hyun-su (firstname.lastname@example.org