Flat White

If we can’t trust big government, how can we trust it with religious liberty?

30 November 2019

8:38 AM

30 November 2019

8:38 AM

Ten days ago, Attorney-General Christian Porter confirmed at the National Press Club “religious hospitals and aged care providers will be given protections equivalent to those given to other religious bodies, in relation to the employment of staff.” Simultaneously, he assured his audience that hospitals and nearly all aged care providers don’t consider someone’s religion when choosing whether to provide them with care. Unsurprisingly, he described the consultation over the government’s religious freedom plans as, “the most grinding process of balance and compromise”, but noted it would probably be a bad thing if all parties got everything they had asked for.

No party in this debate should get everything they want, as demonstrated by the 2019 Religious Freedom Bill Debate at the Press Club last month. Having watched the debate, I was not convinced by either Martyn Iles from the Australian Christian Lobby or the National Secular Lobby’s (and Victorian Reason Party MLC) Fiona Patten, though overall I was more sympathetic toIles’ case. I was not convinced that both understood religious rights and responsibilities, and non-religious (secular) rights and responsibilities.

Iles argued that religious businesses, such as aged care providers, should have more powers to hire and fire employees who don’t live out the religious views, such as the expected Christian sexual ethic, of the organisation: “There should be no surprises. If somebody gets a job… it should be clear what the beliefs of the organisation are, and it shouldn’t be a shock”.

Religious and political organisations are unlike others because not living out the religious and political views of such organisations allegedly compromises the integrity of these organisations. Interestingly, Iles noted that Christianity teaches that “every single one of us is a sinner”, and that he could be sacked as head of the ACL for an act of infidelity. If I was in a position to sack him for an act of infidelity, I wouldn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. As a Christian, I also view infidelity with disdain, but if he engages in infidelity, then that’s a private matter for him to sort out between the person he was being unfaithful towards, and God. This is downstream from the Christian logic that one’s faith should be towards God, not the Church (physical church and the people in it), but should the law allow me to sack him? That’s possibly already the case, under unfair and unlawful dismissal laws.


For example, the Fair Work Commission can decide if a dismissal is harsh, unjust or unreasonable, in light of whether there was a valid reason for the dismissal that relates to the employee’s capacity or conduct, and whether the employee had been previously warned that their performance was unsatisfactory. I’m no lawyer, and call me old-fashioned, but what does an employee’s private life have to do with work, whether it relates to public life or not?

Unless the sin breaks the (secular) law, sin, like much of the Holy Bible, is ultimately a private matter up for interpretation, kind of like the law already. The plurality of Christianity, denominational or otherwise, also cannot be ignored. If Iles’ hypothetical infidelity was to compromise ACL’s public integrity, perhaps that’s just a mere reflection of ACL’s Church, and the reacting anti-ACL crowd’s thirst for blood from the same Church, not a reflection of Iles’ faith in God, and what God thinks of his work at the helm of the ACL.

However, if Iles was a Catholic priest, perhaps I wouldn’t be so forgiving. The Catholic Church operates to a degree of secularity much less than the ACL or a Christian-based aged care provider would. That is, ACL lobbies on behalf of Australian Christians in a secular political environment, and Christian-based service providers don’t just serve religious clients and customers, and don’t just receive donations and funding from religious entities. This is not cultural relativism; this is about balancing religious rights and responsibilities, with non-religious rights and responsibilities.

Iles is right to say that, “If somebody gets a job… it should be clear what the beliefs of the organisation are”. That shouldn’t be a shock, but nor should context and nuance come across as a shock. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to see a gay student expelled from a Christian school, or any school for that matter. However, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that the gay student will respect, and not disrupt, his Christian school’s role in educating its students on Christian teachings which he may disagree with. It’s a place of Christian education, after all.

The same principle applies to gay teachers, and it would also not be unreasonable to expect gay teachers to teach Christian teachings at such schools, even if they disagree with some of those teachings. Otherwise, what are they getting paid for if they don’t want to get the sack? Same principle applies to transgender students and teachers who clinically require to transition to treat gender dysphoria. After all, we don’t single out people seeking treatment for other medical conditions, and at the same time, the school’s educational role shouldn’t be compromised.

As for healthcare professionals who have religious objections to treating patients with gender dysphoria, like the Christian cake bakers, it’s safe in 2019 to leave them be, except for life-and-death cases. We live in an internet age where locating healthcare professionals who administer gender-affirming treatments is easier than ever, and the increasing understanding of best practices for treating gender dysphoria amongst such professionals speaks for itself. There is, of course, the option to leave negative online reviews as appropriate.

With political organisations, if an employee of the Liberal Party one day started to express Labor views, even outside the workplace, I can only imagine the self-inflicted misery, and loss of access to sensitive internal party information, that would come with the switch, without the need for further action using employment laws. This illustration and others above show how balancing religious rights and responsibilities, with non-religious rights and responsibilities, is achievable. Yet despite these objections, I remain more sympathetic to Isle’s case.

Iles agreed that a “broader freedom of speech-type proposal… would be better”. If he meant what he said and elaborated further, my critique of his case probably wouldn’t be as considerable, given that free speech is the most fundamental human right. I couldn’t say the same for Patten, who recently proposed amendments to Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act that would have the effect of 18c on steroids. She has argued that free speech is not limited by a law which limits people’s right to abuse and incite hatred, and she expressed such sentiments during the Press Club debate.

Clearly, Patten doesn’t understand that free speech is a two-way street, much like rights and responsibilities. Free speech isn’t always pleasant, because free speech isn’t free if speech doesn’t come in different types, including the ugly types. The best way for society to keep a lid on ugly speech is to put it back on people to ignore and/or challenge such speech through debate and discourse. This works well in the long-run. Besides, if big government cannot be trusted in general, why should we trust government to decide what constitutes abusive speech, and speech that incites hatred?

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