Freedom – A Hill to Die On

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You’re a sinner. I don’t know what your particular proclivity is but I do know one thing for sure. You’re a sinner.

Mind you, I’m a sinner too but it could be that you didn’t even get to this second line because you were already offended by what I wrote.  That’s your prerogative, but it does mean that you’re going to miss out on some extraordinarily good news about Jesus whom the apostle John describes in this way:

[blockquote quote=”Jesus who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” source=”Rev. 1:5″]

The concept of sin and the need for it to be dealt with lies at the heart of Christian belief (and Jewish and Muslim belief too). The Christian looks to Jesus and his death on the cross as the great rescue from the consequences of our sin. That’s why John mentions his blood – the shed blood of Jesus is the clear indication that he died and his death was on behalf of all those who trust him so that we might be freed. That’s the very heart of Christianity. But it does mean that we need to talk about sin. A Christian not talking about sin is like a doctor not talking about sickness, disease and injury.

Our society hasn’t got much time for the language of sin these days and mentioning some sin in particular can get you into all sorts of strife. In particular we’re all now well aware that to suggest that homosexual activity is sin is going to get you into a whole heap of trouble. Alternate sexual orientations are the new sacred cow and woe betide anyone who suggests that beef is on the menu despite the fact that at last year’s postal survey almost 40% of Australia said that they still like steak.

Of course, it’s not all about sin. There are wider issues at stake (steak?) here. In particular there is freedom of association; the right of Christians (and, of course, anyone else) to gather together and set their own rules and boundaries in common life. So, for example, the Labor Party of Australia has the right to organise itself according to its own rules and standards. It would be ludicrous to suggest that they be forced to employ an official or nominate a candidate who promoted Liberal Party policies.

So it’s disappointing to see that the Labor Party are now promoting a resolution in the Australian Parliament to deny Christians the same right of freedom of association; the right to make rules about their common life. And, surprise surprise, it’s all about the issue of sexual expression. Professor Neil Foster explains:

Senator Wong, leader of the Opposition in the Senate, has introduced a Private Senator’s Bill aimed at removing the power of religious schools to discriminate against same sex attracted students. Unfortunately, the amendments do much more than stop schools expelling students on the basis of their internal sexual orientation (a goal all sides of politics agree on.) They will have a serious impact on the ability of such schools, and other religious bodies, to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Neil has served us well in a series of blogposts that outline all the issues (here, here and here). The bill, at face value, purports to prevent any school from expelling a student simply because they are gay. But here’s the rub: it’s a hammer to crack a nut that doesn’t exist. I can’t find any record of any school in Australia ever doing such a thing.

Instead we end up with a large sledgehammer which could squash far more, and one suspects that the Labor party has no problem at all in swinging the weapon. Foster, again, outlines just how dangerous this all is:

…there will still be some doubt as to what would, and would not, amount to direct or indirect discrimination, and what would be “reasonable” conduct rules that schools could enforce. The courts have been very clear that assurances made in ancillary material provided to, or speeches made in, Parliament, do not determine the content of the law- see, for example, the comments of Spigelman CJ in Harrison v Melhem [2008] NSWCA 67 at [14]: “a statement of intention in a Ministerial Second Reading speech will not prevail over the words of the statute”.

To avoid such doubt, it would be better, rather than completely removing s 38(3), to replace it by a provision that explicitly authorises schools to apply policies as to acceptable conduct which are in accordance with their fundamental faith commitments.

The proposed legislation could have an impact far beyond schools since it applies to “educational establishments”. The Sex Discrimination Act (“SDA”, which this bill is amending) defines an “educational establishment” as a “school, college, university or other institution at which education or training is provided”.

Today I preached 4 times. I educated 4 different congregations. I also teach at training courses and informally in various contexts. As evangelicals we are convinced that educating people is vital. Literally. It brings life. Even if you think this is tenuous, Foster reminds us of the scope covered by the SDA:

…the provisions of s 37 are not limited to “educational institutions”, but apply to every “body established for religious purposes”, which of course will include churches and a whole range of other bodies set up with religious aims. Next, the area in which the s 37(1)(d) protection is removed is simply described as “education”. That word is so broad (going far beyond provision of formal education in schools and colleges) that it might cover, unless somehow other constrained, teaching the Bible in Sunday Schools, in small Bible study groups, and presumably in churches, mosques and synagogues in their public meetings.

That’s right. The bill put forward by Senator Wong encompasses even churches and will lead to them potentially being in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act simply for teaching the orthodox Christian belief that same-sex sexual expression and activity is morally wrong.

So how to respond to this? Foster, in another piece, outlines how we might write to our local member or senator and I want to urge every reader of to do just that. Our church has already made very clear representations to our local member.

This is about the right of Christian schools and other organisations to organise their common life under their own rules. I wonder how many of those who were chirping silly soundbites last year would like it if we suggested to them “don’t like Christian schools? Don’t get Christian schooled!”. The rhetoric is slightly churlish but the principle is deeply important. If we can’t live by our own principles, principles which we have organised ourselves around for nigh on 2000 years, then we have no basis of existence. That makes this a hill to die on.

We’re being told that we can’t say things that might offend others. This is the most ludicrous of situations. If I didn’t have my eyes wide open I’d think I was dealing with my kids 10 years ago when they use to whine about how the other had said something and how it was the end of the universe as we know it because their tender conscience had been lacerated. But the risk of offence is one of the cornerstones of free speech, as Professor Jordan Peterson demonstrated so deliciously in that famous interview…

I don’t have the onerous task of leading Christian school principals in this matter but if I did then I think we’re almost at the moment where we have to make something very very clear to those in Canberra. If they remove this right to organise ourselves according to our own principles (a right that the Labor party would adamantly defend for itself) then there will be some serious repercussions.

Back in 1962 Catholic schools in Goulburn refused to be bullied in a similar way. 600 of their students turned up at their local public schools to be enrolled, as was their right. If Australia’s Christian schools lose the right to govern their common life according to their own long-established principles then their entire raison-d’etre is removed. No worries, as the locals say. I’m sure Australia’s public school system will have no problem dealing with the massive overnight influx of tens of thousands of students. No problem at all.

It’s a big stick, but now is the time to wave it.

Because this is a hill to die on. What Senator Wong’s amendment really seeks to do at the end of the day is to stop us from saying that sin in sin. Not all sin, of course, just the particular sin celebre of the day. I wish it was another topic but this is the obsession of our age and so this is the fight that we find ourselves in; banned from talking about sin. But a Christian banned from talking about sin is like a doctor banned from talking about sickness, disease or injury. That would be a physician with nobody to heal and we would have hospitals full of patients with no cure.

The freedom to speak about these things and to associate with others who speak about these things is therefore not a matter of moralism. Far from it. It’s a hill to die on because it is the right to speak about that wonderful hill that the Lord Jesus Christ died on; the great physician who gave his life to pay for the sickness of our own sin. Senator Wong’s bill seeks to curtail our right to speak of that wonderful event and the life-giving healing that it brings and so it must be resisted strongly, as strongly as if they banned doctors from making a diagnosis.

It must be resisted so that we can speak about

[blockquote quote=”Jesus who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” source=”Rev. 1:5″]

Write to your local member today.

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  1. bcwearne

    There is something politically incomplete and unhealthy about the Labor Party’s jurisprudence and their lack of accountability to the citizenry of this country. When I last looked, the category of “citizen” can be found implicit to our 1901constitution back – not so “political party”, at least not then.

    Please forgive this long treatise. I appreciate your efforts here to join the dots. I hope many Christian citizens, and not just Anglicans, or Bishops, are alerted by your yoeman’s service in this blog.

    Let me explain my point about Labor’s incomplete jurisprudence. What Senator Wong is now telling us is what she wasn’t telling us when she led the Labor Party’s charge for same-sex marriage last year.

    They then all too readily accommodated the Coalition’s Parliamentary short-circuiting of proper judicial review of proposed legislation after the results of the non-binding survey. They simply could not wait and they haven’t exactly told us why.

    Penny Wong’s view is obviously continuing a legislative project that assumed the former Marriage Act definition of marriage had to be changed. For the law to say that marriage is a husband-wife relationship is an offence against human rights.

    It is now clear that her efforts and those of her colleagues were driven by the view that the Marriage Act had to be amended because of its violation of human rights. Whether we heard that in the debate or not, as we now interpret the 2017 Amendment it has to be viewed in terms of that effort to align the Marriage Act with the 2013 Amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act.

    This alleged human rights violation had actually been endorsed by herself and other Labor Parliamentarians in the Marriage Act amendment of 2004. But we are yet to hear a clear admission by the labor Party of that mistake or how their significant policy change occurred. The turnaround in Labor’s view is simply viewed as politically irrelevant. But it is not. Some of us can even remember how, in 2004, her party went out of its way to “me too” the Liberals by efforts to avoid alienating Christian (fundamentalist) and Roman Catholic voters, even voters in the current PM’s church circles.

    But such election time usefulness of such voters has now obviously passed its useby date.

    For the “common good” one might think that the Labor Party would first explain its “evolution” on this vital public policy matter. Shouldn’t they be doing so before the next election in order to get public endorsement for its view of how this should translate in legislation that has a bearing on the conduct of independent schools? Should it not do so in a coherent public policy way before it goes any further?

    The Labor Party seems bent on leaving all that behind and pushing on. There is something deeply unhealthy about this political obsession. And it is manifest in a situation where the Ruddock Panel’s report is still sat upon. Should not Penny and Bill be told that to adopt appropriate Parliamentary patience will not lead to the sky falling in?

    David, you have put your finger on a vitally important point – from the standpoint of public discussion about freedom of association/ speech/ religion – and the Labor Party’s as yet unelaborated view of these matters.

    Consider this: while we endured that debate last year, a fact regularly overlooked was the Labor Party’s decision that, as of the 2019 election, same-sex marriage was to be a non-negotiable policy plank for all endorsed Labor candidates. And so here is the thing. Bill and Penny will no doubt defend their own party’s freedom to make such a policy that excludes paid up members from standing who do not subscribe to same-sex marriage. But is the role of a Parliamentary political party to bring forth legislation that will prevent other social bodies from having the same freedom? Why should a political party have such freedom for itself when by their Parliamentary actions they are announcing that such freedom should be denied to schools?

    But the problem goes further than this: why simply focus upon schools? Why not come out and say that churches that continue to teach that marriage is a husband-wife relationship and do so by appeal to the Bible to justify teaching that marriage cannot be “same-sex” are now in violation of human rights and should be banned?

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