Religious discrimination is too important to sit in the ‘too hard’ basket

A commentary by the Archbishop on the proposed religious discrimination bill, and the public discourse surrounding it.

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The Most Revd Kay Goldsworthy AO | Archbishop of Perth

It is said you should never talk about religion or politics in polite company, because views are held so deeply and passionately that they can ruin the best of family dinners or other polite gatherings.

So should we be surprised that the Australian Government’s attempts to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill ended in metaphorical tears? Possibly not. What might be more surprising, and more than a little confusing, is how a piece of legislation can have the support of both major parties and still fail.

This was by no means a perfect piece of legislation, as Chair of the Public Affairs Commission of the Anglican Church, Dr Carolyn Tan, explains in this edition of The Messenger. But there are gaps in the laws protecting people from religious discrimination in this country. Well-framed legislative protections could be an enormous power for good.

At face value, protecting people from discrimination on the basis of religion – as we have protected people from discrimination on the basis of matters such as race, age, sex and disability – would seem a no-brainer, especially in a country that has significant religious diversity.

So why was it so difficult to draft and pass legislation that united the community in delivering that protection?

The idea of the Bill was reasonably simple: to ensure all people of faith are protected from discrimination in employment, education and provision of goods, services and other areas of public life, on the basis of their religious belief and activity. Australian people of faith surely deserve that. All faiths. All people.
Whether or not there were flaws in the proposed legislation from the start, the surgery performed on this Bill was not about healing our community. Instead, it served only to make it unrecognisable as any kind of mechanism that would genuinely protect people of faith.

This proposed legislation, and the public discourse surrounding it, lost its way. It became caught up with the ongoing challenge our whole society (including Christian communities) faces in grappling with issues of sexual identity, especially among vulnerable young people. How could legislation that would allow religion and faith to be a legitimised weapon to be used against children or staff in schools be Australia’s response to a need for protection against religious discrimination?

There is a major international study from Bar-Ilan University’s Jonathan Fox1 that says religious discrimination is real, and is on the rise, including in an increasingly secular Australian community as well as many other countries around the world.

That study published in 2020 shows we need to shine a spotlight on vulnerable faith-based groups in this country, including Jews and Muslims for whom religious discrimination is a disturbing reality. In terms of social discrimination (as opposed to Government discrimination), that might be mean discrimination in employment, being harassed on public transport, threats of violence, and actual violence and harassment.

With the Religious Discrimination Bill relegated to the ‘too hard’ basket and no Human Rights Charter in Australia, where is the protection for these and other vulnerable groups, particularly in states without their own laws?

A critical element of the definition of discrimination is the notion of unjust or unfair treatment of different categories of people. It reflects many of the core values people of faith and faith-based organisations often espouse: integrity, justice, courage, dignity, kindness. Those words and values were lost in this draft legislation’s journey.

I sincerely believe that Anglican schools, caring Agencies and organisations will continue to treat all students or members of their community justly, fairly and with kindness.

I also hope that common sense prevails in other matters, such as employment practices. One of the protections faith groups wanted was the right to employ people who shared the same worldview. There’s nothing new about that inside or outside of religion. As one person put it in recent discussion, ‘You don’t generally find political parties employing members of the opposition party in key roles – or any role’.

There is an opportunity now to focus on more critical issues of religious discrimination in our country. There is an opportunity to regroup and reframe legislation that will deliver protections that unite, rather than divide us, and deliver the protections due to people of all faiths. In the meantime, we who are Christians can reflect on our historical privilege, even as it fades within Australian society. We are already aware of the suspicion with which Christianity is sometimes met in the community, and the rapidly changing attitudes from various social groups to the message of the gospel.

We can and must strive to act and speak with the colour and grace of Jesus Christ, both as individuals and in our Anglican organisations and institutions. How does our serving, our mission, our ministry in Jesus’ name need to be shaped and reshaped in this time of rapid change? Whatever the details of our programs, our ministry as followers of Jesus remains serving generously in our society, caring lovingly for people when they find themselves at the edges, and telling Jesus’ stories of freedom and abundant life for everyone. We ourselves are witnesses of God’s mercy deeper than the ocean, God’s amazing love broader than we can say and the infinite grace which has brought us home to him.

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way; with great endurance
2 Corinthians 6:3-4a

1. Jonathan Fox, Bar-Ilan University Israel, Thou Shalt have No Other Gods Before Me: Why Governments Discriminate Against Minorities, Cambridge University Press (February 2020)»

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