Religious Discrimination – Time for more open Dialogue
That people should be protected from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender or religion there can be no argument. If there is a perceived legislative gap, it should be filled. However, none should be protected from observing the values, standards, mores, expected of all citizens, especially dignity and respect to all, from all.
The chaotic mess the government got itself into last week was not primarily because of a difference of opinion in their ranks about the rights of people of faith, but because the bill put on the table was not transparently about the protection of individuals from discrimination based on their religion. The bill had been drafted to suit the specific agenda of an influential group of lobbyists – the Australian Christian lobby. That this is the case was made clear when the prime minister announced he was withdrawing the bill from debate in the senate because the ACL declared it no longer fitted their purpose.
In the minds of many politicians, and Joe public, I am sure there is an assumption that by virtue of its name this lobby reasonably expresses the voice of Australian Christians. It most certainly does not. It speaks for a significant and very noisy minority with an obsession for judgement based on sexual orientation and gender. Living in this obsession they appear to find comfort and assurance about what is acceptable to God. It appears they think Christian identity and faithfulness can be demonstrated by their interpretation of a few biblical verses on human sexuality and gender.
There is even evidence that those involved with this lobby are involved in political branch stacking in certain coalition electorates in pursuit of their public and national agenda.
Let this fact be laid openly on the table.
While in 50+ years of ministry I can honestly say I am unaware of any discrimination because of my faith, clearly this is not the case for all. For some men, and some women, religious commitment is easily identified through dress code, which makes them vulnerable to discrimination. They must be protected. Some have suffered discrimination through association. This has particularly been the case for the Muslim community. Because extremism and violence has been perpetrated by some who claim membership of the Islamic faith all have suffered, as most tragically seen in the Christchurch shootings. Australia has become a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, but its history and tradition is firmly rooted in its Christian foundations. Care therefore needs to be taken to ensure that the needs, customs, and festivals of other faiths are both respected and given space for celebration.
In the relative privacy and security of faith communities, people of faith should be able to practice whatever tradition they like, as long as they do not break common law. For example, some faiths practice a hierarchy of male only leadership. However, people of faith have no right to expect that this, or like tradition, should be practiced outside their own community. If a community of faith accepts taxpayer money for the offering of health, education or welfare, that service should be subject to the expectations values and standards of the wider community.
What is even more problematic is the articulation of belief outside communities of faith which adversely affects the lives of others. A clear example has been experienced in this season of Covid. Conspiracy theory and antivax propaganda has many origins, but sadly such origin includes faith communities. Within such communities, people should be free to propagate and enact what they believe – again, as long they are not in breach of the law. Outside that community it is a different matter. Conspiracy theory and antivax propaganda undermines the health and security of the wider population. This is not an opinion, it is a statement based in scientific fact. The politician George Christiansen has the right to espouse these theories in his community of faith, but he has no right to do so as a politician using taxpayer funding. The promotion of theories or beliefs which put others at risk warrants no protection. Dylan Alcott tells the awful story of being informed his disability is punishment from God for past sins. The speaker has no right of protection, on the contrary the speaker should have been subject to appropriate, and if necessary, public sanction.
The broader Australian population has every reason to cherish and encourage communities of faith and their presence in all streams of public life if their motivation is to “To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their God”. (Micah 6: 8). For most such communities, I believe this to be the case and Australia is the richer for it. However, the legislation before the parliament last week did not come from such communities. It came from those which have agendas of their own to prosecute, agendas that clearly cause hurt, misunderstanding, and division.
It is ironic that if I have personally felt discrimination, it is because of being slotted in, by association, with such people in the mind of the public. “You are a Christian and you believe women should have no authority over men”. “You are a Christian and you do not believe in the priority of climate change”. “You are a Christian and you believe in creationism”. “You are a Christian and you believe all who do not believe what you believe are going to hell”. etc etc. It is my subjective feeling that parties on the left of the political spectrum have unintentionally discriminated against mainstream religion because they associate it with such ridiculous positions.
No, I absolutely do not believe such nonsense.
I believe that to know God is the human vocation. I believe that Jesus is the pathway to this knowledge. I believe we are called to follow his way and in doing so to cherish the lives of all for who they are, ‘straight’ or LGBTQI+, male or female, Malawi or Rohingya, Buddhist or Jew.
To be a person of faith is to say ‘yes’ to life. ‘Yes,’ to God. ‘Yes’, to all fellow human beings. ‘Yes’, to the earth that nourishes us. ‘Yes’, to this place, this time.
What was presented to the parliament expressed little ‘yes’ and an abundance of ‘no’.