Bigotry In The Name Of God: The Case Against Religious Exemptions


LGBTI taxpayers are being asked to fund religious organisations that can discriminate against them as employers. Elizabeth Sunderland argues it’s time the free religious ride was ended.

Last week, opposition leader Bill Shorten quietly made a significant promise to the Australian Christian Lobby in an attempt to limit the Christian right-wing’s election damage.

Shorten assured Christian leaders that if the ALP come to power in July, he will not be seeking to roll back the exemptions to anti-discrimination laws that faith-based organisations currently enjoy. Speaking in Perth, Shorten confirmed that “[the ALP]are not interested in telling religious organisations how to run their faith-based organisations. We haven’t seen the case made to make change.”

This pre-emptive statement – Labor were supposed to review the laws whilst in office – has delighted Catholic leaders, Lyle Shelton of the ACL, and The Australian newspaper. Elsewhere, it’s gone largely unnoticed.

For a nation of people who see ourselves as secular and upholding the separation between church and state, Australians are alarmingly complacent about the influence of religious organisations.

It’s easy to see how this happens. A live-and-let-live attitude of religious tolerance and multiculturalism takes as a common-sense principle that people should be able to practise their religions freely, as they see fit. Anything that interferes with the way a church, synagogue, mosque or temple is run could indeed be curtailing religious freedom and we must be careful not to allow such interference on spurious grounds.

In this sense, I think Bill Shorten is absolutely right; we can’t be in the business of removing the freedom to practise one’s religion.

The problem is, faith-based organisations (most prominently, Christian organisations) are not restricted to places of worship. These organisations encompass schools, hospitals, charities, homeless shelters, employment agencies, commercial enterprises, aged care facilities, and joint projects with local councils to provide community outreach.

In other words, many facets of society have faith-based organisations embedded in their everyday running. These organisations receive significant taxpayer funding, funding that is set to increase as more and more services such as employment agencies are outsourced to religions like the Salvation Army.

Currently, exemptions to anti-discrimination laws for faith-based organisations allow them to refuse employment to people on narrow grounds: specifically, on the grounds of sexuality, gender expression (being transgender), and marital status.

In a nutshell, some of the country’s largest employers, and some of the largest recipients of government subsidies, are allowed to flout the law in one particularly important area – sexuality.

I would never argue that a Catholic church or an Orthodox synagogue must be forced to hire openly gay or transgender clergy. If a person’s very existence is questioned by the hierarchy of their religion, I don’t see why they’d want to be in a position to preach that hatred anyway. But I do wonder whether the person who cleans the toilets at the church, or answers the phone at the synagogue office, or cuts the grass at the mosque down the street, or teaches at the parish kindergarten, or does the accounts for the local charity office, or liases with the local council to provide support for homeless people, has to be heterosexual, cisgender, and have children only within the bounds of marriage.

Faith-based organisations are not the small employers many assume them to be, and they are not restricted to places of worship. In Melbourne, around 40 per cent of students attend non-government schools. This means that for those working in the teaching profession, or as educational support staff, or even tuckshop caterers, grounds staff and cleaners, around half the jobs are for religious organisations.

That’s a lot of employees who are not covered by laws designed to protect LGBTI people, as well as divorcees and single parents.

In their 2010 study of discrimination by religious schools, University of Melbourne researchers Carolyn Evans and Beth Gaze found that many school leaders instituted a defacto ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in their schools for both students and staff.

One principal of an Anglican school who participated in the study said of their hiring practices that if the candidate “exhibited things that made me think that they were of a gay nature I wouldn’t want them in the school”.

Other respondents asserted that sexuality was of “a private nature” and that there would be problems at school if staff were openly gay or lesbian.

This attitude is completely incompatible with current workplace policies in the rest of Australia, where LGBTI people cannot be discriminated against, and where it is recognised that for good mental health, we need to be allowed to take our whole selves to work.

Effectively, faith-based schools are expecting to scoop up a large percentage of government funding whilst being able to circumvent the law.

In defense of these exemptions, churches often cite the fact that it is rare for these laws to be used against anyone. But this is disingenuous: not only are even rare cases heinous (I personally know of one case where a teacher was sacked for being pregnant and therefore became unemployed and homeless at the same time as becoming a single mother) but the threat of the law is as effective as its application.

Knowing that you have fewer employment protections than your colleagues can leave you vulnerable to workplace exploitation. What’s more, forced closeting of employees results in mental health difficulties and exacerbates minority stress.

It also makes it far harder for young queer people studying at religious schools to find safe ways to express their own sexuality. And most kids don’t get to choose their schools, let alone other organisations they interact with.

When you add hospitals, employment agencies, charities and other services to the picture, it is clear that LGBTI taxpayers are being asked to fund organisations that can choose to discriminate against us at any time.

Is this the fair and secular nation Australians think we live in? Our laws are here to protect all Australians, and it’s time our politicians had the strength to stand up and say that.

Elizabeth Sutherland

Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer and educator. Her work has appeared online in Overland, SBS Sexuality, The Daily Life, and elsewhere. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality. Follow her on Twitter @MsElizabethEDU