This is a longer version of an opinion piece first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January 2013
In all the outcry about the broad exemptions granted to faith-based organisations in the Government’s draft anti-discrimination legislation, the fact that there are some faith-based organisations that think differently about such matters has been largely overlooked.
For some churches, freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to discriminate. Across many church agencies a commitment to non-discriminatory employment is keenly observed in the employment of teachers, ground staff, nurses or social workers. This commitment arises from some of the core principles of Christian faith.
On behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly (the church’s national council), UnitingJustice Australia has been engaging with the development of the consolidated anti-discrimination legislation since the Attorney General’s Department began working on it. Also, over the years, we have spoken to many federal politicians about the Church’s commitment to laws which uphold our international human rights obligations (including in relation to torture, mandatory detention, freedom of religion, the rights of Indigenous peoples, and the development of a Human Rights Act) and which support the building of a society where all people are treated with dignity and respect.
We do this because we believe that in the eyes of God everyone is of value; everyone is precious. The miraculous healing stories in the gospels, regardless of whether you believe in their literal truth or not, are demonstrations of a love that reaches out to those who are marginalised by prejudice and which challenges the systems, religious an otherwise, that force people to the edges of society where they have no chance of flourishing.
The Christian church has all too often failed to demonstrate this unconditional love. We have, over the centuries, perpetrated and condoned (often by our silence) prejudice, violence and abuse. We are still a long way from blameless.
It is no wonder, then, that many have stopped listening so that even when we do speak of our vision of hope, justice and inclusion, we are rarely heard.
The Uniting Church is the third largest Christian denomination in the country and we represent one of the major mainstream Christian traditions. Yet, for the Government and the Opposition, on this issue, our voice seems to be irrelevant. I do not understand why.
This is a good piece of legislation and it will be improved with some amendments. It deserves to be passed and we will all be better for it.
All legislation which refers to human rights is difficult to draft. Balancing competing rights is not easy and balancing the right to freedom of religion and belief with other rights is one of the most difficult areas.
Like every other religious organisation, the Uniting Church believes we must have an exception to discriminate in the training and appointment of our religious leaders, and this may include school principals and community service agency CEOs as well as ministers and pastors. However, I do not know of a Uniting Church school or UnitingCare agency which would discriminate in employment for teachers, ground staff, nurses or social workers. This does not mean we are perfect but, as a Church, we are committed to the principle of non-discrimination in employment and we continue to work to ensure this is reflected in every aspect of our life.
The inclusion of such attributes as pregnancy and potential pregnancy in the exception for religious bodies and educational institutions I find offensive and dangerous – one can only imagine how this might be used against women! These must be removed.
UnitingJustice has also expressed, a number of times, our concern with such phrases as “conforms to the doctrine, tenets or beliefs of that religion” and “necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion”.
A thesis could be written about the struggles within some Christian traditions about what counts for legitimate belief within orthodox Christian doctrine. Some of the most important debates we have in the Uniting Church are about which of our “beliefs” are core to the doctrine (orthodox) or reasonable expressions of theological diversity within the tradition. One of the things I love most about the Uniting Church is our capacity to live with diversity. But if we sometimes have trouble defining this, how fraught will this be for a secular tribunal or court to determine?
With regards to the second ground, I could give numerous examples of how different individual Uniting Church members are in terms of what offends our “religious sensitivities”. Personally, I have no expectation that my religious sensitivities should be any more privileged than the sensitivities other people may have about matters to do with sexuality, marriage or gender identity. The core issues here should actually be about mutual respect, care and the acceptance of the value of diversity for a healthy society.
Regardless of the legislation, the Uniting Church, its councils and its agencies will continue to uphold our commitment to non-discriminatory employment practices. Living God’s mission to love without distinction and work for justice and peace in the world demands this of us.