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A religious right to hire and fire?

Collectively, religion is one of the largest private employers in the nation, with unique exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. Will Ruddock’s Review recommend more?

By Brian Morris

Quite remarkably, a public majority will be unaware of the likely impact of Prime Minister Turnbull’s decision to empower the Religious Freedom Review. Few will grasp its social implications. Some may recall the PM appointing Philip Ruddock to head an ‘expert panel’ to take public submissions on ‘religious freedom’ – and to identify freedoms believed “lost” when same-sex marriage was legalised. On 31st March, Ruddock will recommend to parliament measures to restore those “lost” freedoms.

For most, this rather solemn-sounding review will be seen simply as one more political committee – with Ruddock sifting through a few submissions to appease Christians, Muslims, and other faiths who continue to feel aggrieved about gay marriage. But fundamentalists of all faiths see this as a rare opportunity to win new concessions. One has only to view the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) website, with its fifteen-point rallying cry for devout Christians to swamp the Review with submissions.

Indisputably, religion asserts its current raft of freedoms through exclusive exemptions from Australian law. They are privileges not accessible to the 78 per cent of citizens who believe the constitution was framed on secular principles, with the foundational concept of separation between Church and State.

From a secular perspective, religious ‘privilege’ has already gone too far

Under federal law, protection of ‘religious freedom’ and legal exemptions include: the Fair Work Act; Migration Act; Age Discrimination Act; Sex Discrimination Act; Evidence Act; and Section 116 of the Constitution. And religions pay no tax under the Charities Act and Tax Act – based on the sole criterion of “Advancing Religion.” International and State laws double this list of entitlements to all faiths!

Here’s the problem. Religion is now, collectively, one of the largest employers in the nation. Private religious schools currently enrol close to 40 per cent of all children – that alone is a huge workforce. Include, too, all the private hospitals, aged care facilities, employment agencies, charities, shelters, and a raft of commercial enterprises, and the total number of religious employees is staggering.

Church institutions are already free to “hire and fire” on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and marital status. Without question, submissions to the Ruddock Review will call for further entitlements to discriminate in employment in favour of the faithful – the Australian Christian Lobby website makes that clear. The truth is that most of the duties performed are not religious in nature – they are secular.

Ironically, these religious institutions will argue vigorously that it should be illegal to discriminate against them – because of their religious beliefs – but in the same breath insist they should be given further employment entitlements to discriminate against people who do not share those beliefs!

Certainly, it is fair to say many roles within private religious enterprises require training suitable to their “mission”. Those engaged in overt religious practice, in pastoral care, theological positions, and for advocacy, will need to meet church criteria. But for the majority of ‘secular’ positions, employment opportunities should not be barred to those who do not meet their strict standards of biblical faith.

It would be wrong for the Religious Freedom Review to extend faith-based exemptions for secular positions in education, health or social services. In fact, exemptions should be wound back for all ‘public services’ run by religious organisations. These exemptions are not a matter of genuine religious freedom, because there is no religious law or doctrine that requires its followers to run education, health or social service facilities! Our constitution rejects a ‘religious test’ for public office; why not also for secular roles in ‘publicly funded’ religious enterprises?

If religious adherents cannot follow laws that apply to all other citizens – and without privileged legal exemptions – they should consider withdrawing from those activities and focus solely on their beliefs and religious worship. One clear example is private religious schools which are free to discriminate against secular employees, while the institutions are publicly funded to the tune of $12.8b.

Religious exemptions undermine our secular constitution; they weaken the basic rule of law that must apply to all people; and they deny the non-religious the right to their own beliefs. Why do we give exclusive entitlements to people of faith when all religion is purely a matter choice? Believers are not compelled to believe – particularly when “doubt” is uppermost in the minds of many. Every religion cannot, by pure logic, be equally true. It raises questions for people of faith to contemplate.

Special entitlements, based on arbitrary faith, are necessarily problematic. Such privileges should be equal to all – or to none. However, there seems little doubt the Ruddock Review will make a number of recommendations to parliament, to rectify the perception of “lost” freedoms.

We can only trust parliament does not acquiesce to further religious entitlements. Indeed, the process needs to be reversed – specifically for non-theological positions in faith-based institutions funded by taxpayers. The level of religious privilege and authority is already inappropriately high – in a nation that claims to be a secular democracy.

Footnote: This opinion piece is based on a Religious Freedom Review submission by NSW barrister, Dean Stretton.

Brian Morris is a founder of The National Secular Lobby. The National Secular Lobby is a newly formed secular organisation promoting ‘secular politics’, the raft of social issues that relate in some way to the Separation of Church and State. Click here to see their aims and objectives.



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  1. Ken

    I totally agree with all the points made in your article Brian.

  2. Diane Larsen

    Totally agree religious belief is a choice made by a section of the populous who should be free to follow their belief without trying to inflict or force it on others

  3. Ill fares the land

    It is notable that one of the tenets of the “right” and even more of the “far right” that governments should not meddle in people’s lives. The paradox is that the religious right will use every last little gram of influence they have over governments to ensure that the LNP government in fact intrudes even more into people’s lives and at an increasingly “micro” level. The disparity between what the LNP says and what it does is breathtaking.

    While it tries to convince us that it is allowing markets to be free and citizens to have choices, they insidiously go about managing every facet of our lives – including persistent attacks on freedom of speech. Of course, what the right really detest is that the free press has the right to criticise them – it was also the case with that most vile of the right – the deplorable Maggie Thatcher.

    Her vicious attacks on personal freedoms; any of her ministers in cabinet who dared to do anything other than sycophantically endorse her views (in other words to kiss her a**) and in particular the freedom of the (UK) press have largely been airbrushed out of history when she is judged as a politician, but these were hallmarks of her governance and marked her not as a person who believed in personal freedoms and rights, but as a person who believed only in her right to govern, to have things her way and to accumulate greater power. It is also thus in Australia, although there is perhaps no individual LNP politician who is quite so “Thatcher-esque” but the compendium of LNP views is towards more and more restriction of freedoms where those freedoms are counter to LNP interests.

  4. LisaM

    The other thing, because of their tax, rates, etc exemptions they are anti-competitive, having an unfair advantage over normal commercial organisations That’s a massive market distortion.

  5. Roswell

    I have a horrible feeling this is going to turn out just how the religious far-right want it to.

    There was never any doubt.

  6. diannaart

    Excerpt from the Stirrer:


    Religions are currently given fairly wide latitude to discriminate against LGBTI people in Australia. Religious organisations are permitted to break laws that others may not, without fear of penalty.

    It is not clear what purpose this serves, other than to reinforce the segregation and ghettoization of religious communities from mainstream Australia, the perils of which were noted above. And to encourage some people to treat obedience to secular law as secondary, or even optional, according to their own personal beliefs and consciences. This is not a healthy attitude to encourage.


    Yet, religion has bullied its way into an inquiry demanding MORE special rights.

  7. Zathras

    They want the legal right to discriminate or criticise under the banner of Religious Freedom but if you dare to “return the favour” they immediately call it Persecution.

    Will employers be granted the legal right to fire those who have differing religious beliefs under the same legislation?
    It’s like the argument that wearing burqas should be banned because women allegedly being forced to wear them by forcing the same women NOT to wear them.
    This is just Taliban-style politics and the hallmark of a Theocratic State.

    Until Churches contribute to society via taxation they should have no say in how that society chooses to operate.

  8. Terry2

    We already know that the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) allows church groups to discriminate in employment which can impact adversely on LGBTI people in occupations including education and medicine where churches operate their own publicly funded schools and hospitals.

    Under the legislation discrimination is forbidden against an employee because of the employee’s race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin and that’s the way it should be.

    BUT the same legislation gives an out in what religious groups call a protection .

    The legislation allows the termination of a person’s employment if:

    the person is a member of the staff of an institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed—with the proviso that the employment is terminated:

    (i) in good faith; and

    (ii) to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

    There is no obligation for the religious entity to, for instance, show that a gay teacher is in fact causing : injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed. As happened recently in WA, a teacher of good standing in a religious school receiving 80% of its funding from the taxpayer, was outed as a gay man and instantly his employment was terminated.

    This is wrong and I would expect an enquiry such as that being run by Ruddock would recommend that a provision be incorporated in the act requiring the religious organisation to prove that the continued employment of that young man would injure the religious susceptibilities of that institution.

    Do you think he will do that ???

  9. John Valente

    NO to exemptions for religious/superstitious reasons.

    Freedom of religion MUST not breach the Constitutional pillar of SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE!

    Stop this consideration of freedom of religion immediately. ALL citizens must obey the law of the land and if that means compliance with new marriage laws, protection of employment based on orientation or any such bias then that must be upheld.

    Australia is no longer theist-driven and NEVER was a ‘christian nation’ – the census shows the country’s direction – therefore YOU must obey the will of the people and not impose these dogmas on your voters.

    Jail sentences for those who breach this constitutional mandate MUST be imposed.

    Freedom FROM religion and all other forms of superstition, theism and tribal voodoos MUST be the path of Australia in a 21st century government. We don’t live in flat earth Roman theocracy times anymore.

    There CANNOT ever be laws or get-out clauses/exemptions created to allow thinly veiled theist dogma to influence government decisions, policy and legislation.

    If churches and theists want a say in politics or in other people’s lives then they can start paying taxes!

    NO NO NO NO further say in other people’s lives by bronze age theist organisations and doctrines.

    Stop this now! And STOP funding fee-charging theist private schools. Public funding for public schools only!

    You have been directed here. DO as your voters direct you. Stop it now or get another job, we’ll vote you out.

    Keep your superstitions out of our schools.

    2.. Keep your dubious morals out of our beds.

    Keep your Bronze Age rules out of our Laws.
    Keep your genitals away from our children!

    People like Taliban Abbott, Ruddock, Bernardi and alike should not be allowed to run for office with such sick agendas.

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