Religious Discrimination: Why I Welcome a National Law

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The Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and related legislation which is now before the Federal Parliament, is much-needed and long-awaited. While not perfect, it has many good aspects which Christians—as well as those of other faiths and all Australians—ought to welcome.

First, it fills a huge gap in Australian legislation. Did you know that here in Sydney where I’m writing you could put a sign up outside a restaurant saying “we don’t serve Hindus” and you’d actually not be breaking the law? That’s the current situation both in New South Wales and South Australia and obviously needs to be rectified. The bill standardises a national approach where states’ laws vary greatly. Not only that, but it gives us legislative implementation of Article 18 of the UN Human Rights Charter which has been in place since 1948 but will only now gets recognition in Australian law:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

(UNHRC Article 18)

That last clause is important because religious belief involves all-of-life observance. We’re Christians both on Sunday morning and when we walk out of the church doors. A mature democracy will not only recognise but protect the right to manifest religion seven days a week.

Second, the bill clarifies the law in a number of areas where there’s been uncertainty about what people can and cannot say in public. Current laws vary from state to state and we’ve seen pretty punitive actions taken by some using current laws in some jurisdictions.

The Porteous case is a striking example. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tasmania Julian Porteus issued a pastoral letter, “Dont Mess With Marriage,” during the same-sex marriage debate of 2015 which not only set out orthodox Christian belief on human sexuality but also argued that same-sex marriage was not good for children in those marriages (a contested position but one that is more than amply demonstrated by a number of research papers[1]).

Porteus was targeted by activists who were not even the intended recipients of the letter, yet they nevertheless complained that they were “humiliated” and “offended”. Under Tasmanian Law this meant that the Archbishop entered an Anti-Discrimination process. The complainant eventually dropped the complaint, despite originally claiming that the letter “caused immeasurable harm,” without having to reimburse any of Porteus’ numerous expenses.

This is just one example of why clarity in the law is required. Numerous other cases can be read about at Australia Watch. The new bill will deal with these disparities of approach and provide protection for those who simply want to manifest their religion.

Third, the bill actually brings our laws into line with what most people think they should be. According to the latest research published by the respected McCrindle, “Australia’s Changing Spiritual Landscape,” 29% of Australians say they have been discriminated against because of their religion or religious views and 80% are in support of passing legislation to protect against religious discrimination. There is a real problem out there, as we’ve already seen above, and a real desire to do something about it.

And, perhaps most fundamentally of all, this bill marks us out as a mature democracy where we understand the difference between discrimination and disagreement and genuinely recognise that everyone gets a fair go—including the freedom to express and manifest our (often very deeply held) religious beliefs without fear of being discriminated against. Legislation is important, not only because of the laws themselves, but also because of the values that they communicate. That was, of course, exactly the argument made around same-sex marriage: changing the law sent a clear signal about Australia’s valuing of such relationships. Well the same is true now. A well-drafted religious discrimination bill sends a very clear message that Australia is a nation of adults who can cope when others disagree with and even strongly criticise them. Again, the McCrindle research tells us that most Australians think in exactly this way:

90% of Australians believe that in Australia, people should have the freedom to share their religious beliefs, if done in a peaceful way, even if those beliefs are different to mainstream community views.

This, ultimately, is going to be where the main point of contention comes: the right of Christians and others to live out our religion; to speak of it to others; to freely organise ourselves into associations such as schools that uphold our own ethics—even if the wider Australian society takes strong issue with us on fundamental aspects of that belief.

Most of all, of course, wider Australian society (or perhaps the loudest voices within it) has several shibboleths that it cannot tolerate being criticised, the greatest of which is a fluid view of sexuality and gender. This has already become the battleground issue for debate around the new bill, with articles about gay teachers being “fired” from Christian schools etc.

But this is precisely why we ought to welcome the new bill. We could evangelise without it (and we certainly have been) but it does protect and reinforce something very important and, indeed, life-giving for our nation.

One of Jesus’ very first recorded words in the Scriptures is “repent!” (Mark 1:15). He walked into his own nation and told them that their lives needed to change. The call to repent is the natural and necessary precursor to the announcement of the gospel. Jesus’ call is to a wonderful new life in his kingdom, but it is also a clear challenge to the life we may be currently living.

This challenge offended people then and it still offends people today. A law which allows us to offend people in this way is therefore a law which is good for Australia; it is good for a healthy intellectual life in general (and western culture is sorely lacking in healthy intellectual discussion). It sends a signal that profound disagreement is not only allowable but good and that’s a society in which Jesus’ radical challenge to “repent!” may even gain a fresh ear.

[1] E.g. the Regnerus “New Family Structures” Study of 2012

also published at The Gospel Coalition Australia.

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  1. Paul Nolan

    A well-reasoned analysis. I especially like the observation – ‘this bill marks us out as a mature democracy where we understand the difference between discrimination & disagreement & genuinely recognise that everyone gets a fair go.’

    The gay lobby consistently show their immaturity when discussing religion in Australia & thereby do themselves a great disservice.

    Paul Nolan

    1. Syd

      Many argue that the Church shows their immaturity when discussing matters of sexuality. There are a variety of views regarding the applications of Paul’s (recently translated) word into ‘homosexual’ as it relates (or not) to same sex monogamous mutually beneficial love. It’s hard not to see the Christian conservative view on same sex attraction as the next Copernican heliocentric blind spot.

      Secondly, Jesus spent little time (zero) trying to legislate ‘faith’. Unfortunately a disposition the church has drifted from.

      There is a also a fairly glaring hypocrisy where the church are asking for ‘the right to offend’ and asking for maturity of debate, but also requesting that they can rid anyone of their employment who dissents to a narrow, evangelical, western view of scripture. This is evidently a desire to have ones discrimination cake and eat it too.

      1. Paul Nolan

        The Bill is silent on translations of what St. Paul said or did not say about homosexuality. As it is on how much time Jesus may have spent trying to legislate faith. Please be relevant.

        David Ould was relevant (& correct) to observe the Bill marks Australia as a mature democracy whose citizens understand the difference between discrimination & disagreement.

        Churches have not & are not asking Parliament for a right to offend. The Bill, should it pass, will ensure all Australians are protected from discrimination because of their religious belief or activity, just as we are all protected now from discrimination because of our age, sex (incl. sexuality & gender identifications), race, & disability. The Bill includes exemptions (also called exceptions) for religious schools & other religious bodies from fully complying with the employment requirements of the Sex Discrimination Act.

        There is nothing new in that. Exemptions on religious grounds have been in that Act since it was written in 1984. For forty years there have been no claims, or evidence presented, that exemptions have given churches a right to offend anyone.

        Some in the gay lobby are not mature enough to understand that the public’s acknowledgement & welcoming of progress their community have made under law changes enacted from time to time, does not mean the religious community must forgo their right to live as they choose & to send their children to religious schools in the expectation they will employ staff the parents are happy with.

        Parents & gay teachers have an alternative in State schools.

        Paul Nolan

        1. Syd

          The Anglican Church takes what Paul said as confirmation they have a right to discriminate, it’s entirely relevant.

          I believe that religious people (of whom I am one) should be protected from discrimination, it’s a no brainer.

          But I’m not hypocritical enough to take that protection and deny it to others. I understand, and to a degree support someone’s desire to send their kids to a school with the same ‘life ethos’ but I can guarantee you that a significant proportion of teachers in those schools do not believe or live the lives that pertain to the Christian ‘life ethos’ but their sins are glossed over, because at least they aren’t gay. It’s another form of hypocrisy.

          I went to a prominent Anglican school, and was taught by an atheist (probably gay) teacher. The diversity taught me more than a purely Christian echo chamber ever would have.

          People should be protected from religious discrimination, and people (gay ones) should also be protected from sexual discrimination anything else is hypocritical.

          Religious institutions are state schools if you follow the money. If your school refuses government funds, good for them. Saying parents and gay teachers have other options is about as ‘right’ as saying Christian can shop elsewhere if Coles banned Christian’s, it’s true, but it’s not good.

          I’m glad that the religious will have legal protection soon, it’s just a shame the Church are trying to carve out a ‘safe space’ they aren’t willing to share in their own institutions.

          All the best.

          1. Paul Nolan

            You don’t get it. I shall try one last time. ‘people (gay ones) should also be protected from sexual discrimination’. They have been, for years. Now it’s your turn & this Bill will protect you from religious discrimination. Embrace it & vote Coalition next year.

            1. chris russell

              Paul, are you comments here based on the biblical view of the issues concerning sexual ethics and the persecution of Christ’s followers, or are you setting that aside as being irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion?

              1. Paul Nolan

                Hi Chris. David Ould’s article concerns the Religious Discrimination Bill. I have tried to follow suit. If pedantic I could try to connect the Bill with the persecution of Christ’s followers but I think that’s a bit far-fetched.

                The Bill, if passed, will ensure people have a right to express their views, for example on ‘biblical sexual ethics’. Others are free to opine such are rubbish. That’s democracy in action. As Ould observes, the new law will fill a big gap in Australian legislation. It is a well overdue balancing of existing anti-discrimination laws. On here ‘Syd’ tries, erroneously, to conflate controversy & hypocrisy.

                1. Syd

                  I respectfully disagree. Controversy is the response, hypocrisy is the charge, no conflation.

                  I honestly can’t see an intellectually honest appraisal of a bill that excludes a group from discrimination, while allowing that group to discriminate as anything other than hypocritical. Call it a ‘tension’ or a ‘contradiction’ if you must, but ignoring it extraordinarily blinkered.

                2. chris russell

                  OK, Paul, I will take it as a Yes, and that you are setting aside the biblical view of the issues concerning sexual ethics and the persecution of Christ’s followers as being irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion i.e. at least insofar as it’s a bit “far-fetched” to connect the Bill with the persecution of Christ’s followers.

                  I also think that it’s a bit far-fetched to connect the Bill with the persecution of Christ’s followers. On the biblical view, the persecution of Christ’s followers is considered an honourable thing, which of course it is (Acts 5:41). That’s why I am having trouble getting my hear around this whole debate. Someone please help me!

                  1. chris russell

                    That should read “getting my HEAD around this whole debate”. See how confused I am.

            2. Syd

              Oh I get it, and just to be clear, here’s what I get…

              “The bill has additional provisions that go well beyond standard discrimination law to allow people of faith to discriminate against others. It is these provisions that make this bill so controversial.”

              This is the hypocrisy…..

              Get it?

          2. chris russell

            Syd, if you are a follower of Christ, why should you be protected from discrimination?

  2. chris russell

    David’s argument reminds me of the mundane thinking of the philosopher, Roger Scruton, who, in reference to the saying, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s”, made the following statement.

    “He [viz. Jesus] clearly assumed that, properly formulated, the two jurisdictions [viz. secular law and religion] need not conflict” (Scruton, 2012, p24).

    The problem with Scruton’s reading of the text is that it gives rise to interests that would seek to promote the welfare of the church in a democratic society. We may be inclined to think that that is a very good thing, and David obviously does. The problem with that, however, is that God did not become man to make assumptions as to the proper formulation of the relation between religion and the secular law. To hope, in this familiar way, that we might be able to “give a fresh ear” to Jesus’ radical challenge to repent of our sin, provides actually a tin ear for the purpose.

  3. Robert Bruce

    It is our Christian duty to challenge non-Christians to repent and believe. If our challenge offends them, that shows that they really need to repent and believe, to receive the gift of life, life with the Lord both here and in the hereafter.
    The Lord gives us that duty in the Great Commission so we can help Him to bring more of the people He loves into the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, where they will live with Him face-to-face. The alternative, for all the people who say they are not “God-botherers” is the eternal lake of fire. How often do we hear at funerals that “Uncle Frank is up there having a beer with God” when we know that Frank never bothered about God in his mortal life so he is actually wailing and gnashing his teeth in the lake of fire.
    Any law that allows Christians to challenge non-Christians and to bring them into God’s kingdom is not only good for Australia but good for the future of those who need the Lord in their lives.

    1. Syd

      Hasn’t history shown us that the church thrives and grows when it operates separately from Empire or state?

      1. David Ould

        Indeed, as is the case here in Australia. Yet the Scriptures also call us to pray for our leaders in order “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1Tim. 2:2).
        This legislation allows us to get in with our peaceful and quiet lives.

        1. Syd

          Hmmm, I’m not sure praying for ones leaders is the same as getting particular pieces of legislation passed, but point heard.

          It just seems like this one is asking for protection from discrimination, while also asking for the ability to discriminate.

          Consistency would be (for example) the wallabies not be able firing their players for believing that God will punish gays (a good thing) and the Church not firing their staff for believing the opposite. (Also a good thing)

          If we’re speak about mature democracies, I think that’s the highest aspiration, and this bill doesn’t facilitate that.

          For a bill to pass the test, I think we need to see how it impacts those we disagree with and this one only protects half the crowd. A better bill would protect all.

          1. Syd

            Sorry for the typos, typing on the move with fat fingers…

      2. chris russell

        I think that what we should say, Syd, is that what the Bible shows us is that it’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing per se if the people of God enjoy political power. There are various so-called urban myths out there, peddled by American Christians, in particular eg. that separation of Church and State and religious freedom are important for the church, but rest assured that advocates are making no distinction between their institutional churches and God’s holy people who since Pentecost have been known gloriously as the body of Christ. What we should do, as disciples of Christ, is to be clear about our priorities and get them right.

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