BRIAN GREIG: Religious freedom has become a catchword for what is discrimination

Brian Greig
The Nightly
Some churches are looking for exemption from anti-discrimination laws.
Some churches are looking for exemption from anti-discrimination laws. Credit: Pcess609 - stock.adobe.com

In May, shadow attorney-general Michaelia Cash wrote an opinion piece in these pages that claimed Australia was losing its religious freedom.

The senator said she had meetings with faith leaders who “feel they are under attack by the States”.

Curiously, nowhere in that article did the senator spell out exactly what these “attacks” were, or give examples.

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Equally, faith leaders talked only in vague terms about wanting to “maintain their ethos” and ensure that teachers “model their values”.

I suggest the reason Senator Cash and those who promote these arguments use camouflaged language is because the truth is too revealing.

At its centre, the false narrative of “religious freedom” being drummed up in Australia is all about discriminating against LGBTQA+ teachers and students.

It’s also about discriminating against LGBTQA+ staff and volunteers in faith-based services.

While Senator Cash has been meeting with faith communities to discuss this, she has not sought any consultations with LGBTQA+ communities directly impacted by this discrimination.

With the passage of same-sex marriage legislation in 2017, conservative religious groups were alarmed to discover the wide support for LGBTQA+ equality. The postal plebiscite showed over 62 per cent approval.

They were shocked because they had been demonising LGBTQA+ people from the pulpit for decades, unaware most voters have become secular and churches have lost moral authority.

In response, some churches are now demanding that Parliament legislates to enshrine their moral codes. When they talk about freedom, they mean the freedom to discriminate against those they don’t like, and they want to secure the “right” to discriminate against LGBTQA+ people in law.

The problem with this is that faith schools and faith-based services are publicly funded.

Religious organisations now run schools, hospitals, disability services, charities, employment service providers, accommodation resources and age care homes. These services are heavily funded by the taxpayer and offered to the whole community.

Yet many of these faith-run, taxpayer-funded organisations reject or sack LGBTQA+ staff, or discriminate against LGBTQA+ volunteers and clients. They claim this as “upholding beliefs and values”, and demand the right to keep doing it.

Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT and Northern Territory have outlawed this discrimination. It remains legal in WA.

When faith leaders bemoan that their “beliefs and values” are under attack, what they mean is that most States have removed their special religious exemptions and they must comply with anti-discrimination laws; their special privilege has been removed.

In 2021, then-prime minster Scott Morrison tried to pass a religious discrimination Bill at the behest of conservative churches, but the sticking point was discrimination against LGBTQA+ teachers and students in faith schools.

Morrison belatedly claimed he would protect gay students, but not trans students or LGBTQA+ teachers. It became a farce and the Bill collapsed.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pledged to restore a more balanced religious discrimination Bill but already the right-wing churches are criticising it for “not going far enough”, largely because it protects LGBTQA+ teachers and students. Notably, Federal Labor has been silent on faith-based services.

Now, the Opposition has gone even further than the failed 2021 Bill, demanding not only that faith schools should have the unfettered right to discriminate against LGBTQA+ teachers and students, but also that existing State laws which prevent this discrimination (some in place for a quarter of a century), be abolished.

The euphemism for this is theocratic purge is “allowing faith schools the positive right to discriminate in hiring”. Not even Scott Morrison’s Bill went as far as overriding States which already protect teachers.

Last month, national polling by YouGov Galaxy found that 65 per cent of voters oppose LGBTQA+ discrimination in faith-run services.

More tellingly, some 60 per cent said faith services which do discriminate in this way should not be entitled to public funding. A majority also opposed discrimination in faith schools.

Repeated polling shows voters don’t approve of LGBTQA+ discrimination in the name of religion. Not just in schools but in faith-run services, and where this does happen they do not want it sanctioned with public funding.

These are Australia’s core “beliefs and values”, and it’s these tenets that need protecting.

Brian Greig is the WA spokesperson for Just-Equal Australia

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