How much credence should we really give to religious bodies who claim to be the foundation of morality, who claim that Jesus (or Allah, or Yahweh) loves everyone, while zealously insisting on being exempted from the most moral, most tolerant, most inclusive legislation in the country?
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 12 February 2011 that New South Wales Attorney-General John Hatzistergos expressed approval for a law that permits private schools to expel a student for being gay. As in other Western countries, the vast majority of Australian private schools are owned and run by religious groups.
Meanwhile in Victoria, Attorney-General Robert Clark is presently drafting legislation to reverse a recent tightening of religious-based discrimination, thus returning to religious bodies the blanket freedom that remains in NSW and other states, even before the new legislation comes into effect.
The NSW law in question is the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. Parts 2 through 5 outlaw discrimination based on race, sex, transgender status, marital and domestic status, disability, carer responsibilities, homosexuality, HIV status and age. It also includes prohibitions for vilification of anyone covered under the Act, advertising anything prohibited in the Act and sexual harassment. On the face of it, a very thorough Act.
However, section 56 unconditionally exempts religious bodies from the whole Act in circumstances where it does not “conform to the doctrines of that religion” or it is otherwise “necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.” (s56(d))
So the religious are allowed to discriminate because God said they can. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to interpret this clause.
Anti-Discrimination Acts in every Australian state have a similar exemption:
ss75-77 of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 (Vic);
ss81-84 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) – effective Aug 2011;
s109 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld);
ss72-73 of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA);
s50 of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA); and
ss51-52 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).
Most of these sections have the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card of bypassing the Act when “necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.” So if, for example, gay people were permitted to study at a religious institution, that might offend other students, so the anti-discrimination act doesn’t apply.
It is legal today, in most states of 21-Century Australia, to form a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping the homeless while explicitly refusing to help gay, single-mother, Aborigine or disabled homeless people, so long as the organisation is founded on a religious doctrine that states that these classes of people are immoral, inferior or otherwise unworthy of assistance.
This exemption includes clauses in the Acts that prohibit vilification due to race, sexuality and HIV status. So it is legal for a preacher to vilify gays, blacks and unwed mothers at the pulpit, and even to advertise such vilification with no legal consequences.
These exemptions not only hinder the spread of a genuine sentiment of equality across the community, but they also serve to propagate false religions. All a person has to do if he wants to make a show of serving the public but still continue ostracising certain demographics is simply register a religious body, plead “religious doctrine” and the Commonwealth and states wash their hands of the matter.
As noted in a recent article in The Age, “the Catholic Church is one of the biggest private employers in Australia and claims the right to vet the sexual morals even of the gardeners in the hospital grounds.” Any other employer would unquestioningly be fined under such acts as anti-discrimination, workplace relations and others.
In 2005, NSW Green Party senator Lee Rhiannon unsuccessfully proposed a repeal of the perks of small-business, private schools and religious bodies, stating, “when religious organisations interact with the public as service providers, businesses or de facto government agencies the ordinary rules of society ought to apply.”
Rhiannon pointed out that religious bodies are now performing many community services that were once the exclusive domain of the Government, such as job-placement. When the Howard government privatised the Commonwealth Employment Service, religious organisations applied to perform the task. But because they’re faith-based, they can legally recommend a married mother over a single mother for a vacancy. A straight person over a gay person. A European over an Aborigine.
And they are operating primarily on government funding.
So I ask again: How much credence should we really give to religious bodies who claim the moral high-ground while demanding governmental permission to act in the most immoral ways?