Gay rights advocates and a Jewish community body have rejected a rabbi’s claims a government funded anti-homophobic bullying scheme is teaching “moral wrong”.

In an article for the Australian Family Association journal, Institute for Judaism and Civilization director Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen (the son of recently deceased former Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowen) wrote that anti-bullying initiative Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) is “unethical” because it teaches children about homosexuality which goes against the word of God.

“As part of its program, [SSCV] requires schools to teach the acceptability of homosexual behaviour as a norm. By so doing, it flies in the face of over 3000 years of religious and cultural tradition since Sinai,” the Melbourne-based rabbi wrote.

“In terms of the world religions and world civilization, it is teaching something which is a moral wrong and fundamentally unethical.” Cowen, also an associate of Monash University’s School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, claims the anti-bullying program breaches religious rights.

“The notion that every child in a school, of which a great many come from religious backgrounds which prohibit homosexual behaviour, … must be taught in the school from infancy that homosexual behaviour is equally normative is coercive,” he said.

“State institutions are being required by it to teach values which override and negate the teachings of the traditional world religions and so infringe religious liberty.”

In November, the Baillieu Government, as part of a $4 million funding grant to tackle suicide and self-harm among LGBTI youth, awarded the SSCV program $416,000 to expand its work.

SSCV coordinator Roz Ward slammed Cowen’s attack. She said schools, including Progressive Jewish school King David, have opted into the program, which aims to create a supportive environment for same-sex attracted teens at risk of being bullied.

“Our research … shows a clear link between homophobic bullying and levels of self-harm and suicide,” Ward told the Star Observer.

“It’s an ideological position to say there should be specific religious education in schools. Saying there should be a level of safety and welfare for the health of students in schools is not an ideological position, it’s a bare minimum.”

Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) executive director Peter Wertheim said Cowen’s views were not representative of the larger Jewish community.

“The ECAJ reiterates its and the Australian Jewish community’s strong opposition to bullying at school on any grounds, including sexual orientation, and welcomes any government program designed to counteract bullying that has the support of victims and educators,” he said.

“While opinions differ both in the Jewish community and in the wider community about whether sexual orientation is predetermined in any sense, it is essential that any public discussion of the issue must not vilify individuals or groups on the ground of sexual orientation or gender identity, to which we are totally opposed.

“The view that homosexuality is an illness does not represent a general view of the Jewish community.” Gay Jewish support group Aleph convenor Michael Barnett accused Cowen of using “junk science” to back up his claims that a specifc anti-gay bullying program is not needed.

“Saying it’s immoral to support people who are homosexual is distressing,” “Tradition is not an argument for pulling apart a proven, accredited support program,” Barnett said. “It carries no weight, it’s not based in science, it’s not based in reason, it’s not based in any modern practices, it’s simply an outdated understanding of human behaviour which is simply flawed.”

“We have traditions in the past we no longer stand by because they were bad, this is another bad tradition.”

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