Is there room for religious bigotry in business?

Chris Fotinopoulos / 16 July 2019

As hard as it is to admit it, exclusion is a part of a multicultural country. Considering we’re all religious to a differing degree, is there space for this thinking in our businesses?

Take a drive along any arterial road and you’re likely to pass numerous dwellings dedicated to various deities with its congregants practicing their brand of faith, free of external interference.

Apart from the exclusive varieties, most churches are open to anyone seeking respite from secular life. But as much as most churches are welcoming, they are free to exclude anyone who disrespects their ethos.

Just as I can ask an unruly guest to leave my home, so too can church officials determine who leaves God’s home. It is, after all, the host’s prerogative to reject anyone who is out of step with house rules.

Unpalatable as it may be for Australians of no religion (which according to the latest census data is at 30%), the church gets away with internal practices that non-religious organisations can’t.

Unlike government schools, faith-based schools are free to refuse to employ gay teachers and reserve the right to teach anti-evolutionary “Biblical” theories in science classes. Church-based aged care centres can deny a bed to a same-sex elderly couple, and faith-based Victorian hospitals will be afforded the right to refuse a patient request for assisted dying.

Although the law under Section 75 (2) of the Equal Opportunity Act permits certain religious practices out of respect for religious freedom, I’m not so sure that the free market is as accommodating.

If a religious institution or a person of deep religious conviction chooses to trade in, for example, cakes, furniture or entertainment that may play a part in hospitality following a marriage, they do so on the condition that they make their goods available to all.

This is because businesses enter the marketplace on quid pro quo basis. In exchange for access to a massive market, a business agrees to trade with everybody regardless of race, colour, sexual orientation or religious belief. Religious privilege is, in effect, traded for the market privilege.

This does not mean that businesses cannot impose certain conditions on trade. Just as restaurants, clubs and bars can impose dress codes or place limits on customised requests, so too can religious businesses.

I can think of many cases where customer demands can be declined for legitimate reasons. Take the straightforward example of a car manufacturer that offers a particular model only in the colours blue, green, and white. If a customer asks for pink and the manufacturer says, “we don’t do pink,” the manufacturer cannot be accused of discrimination. Clearly, the standard model must be available to all, but the manufacturer is not expected to accede to all customised requests.

This situation is no different to the US Christian baker who refused service to a gay couple. The controversy with this baker did not centre on his refusal to sell a wedding cake to the couple. To do so would be outright discrimination and blatant bigotry.

In a pluralistic liberal democracy such as ours, all businesses ought to be free to reject a certain customised request, but they do so at the risk of social backlash and financial calamity.

The controversy revolved around the baker’s refusal to inscribe a personalised message that was inconsistent with the baker’s religious values. It may have been bad business decision, but there is no law against running a business badly.

The way I see it, the baker’s refusal to accede to the request is no different to a Christian baker refusing to inscribe the words “Mohammad is the messenger of Allah” on a Simnel cake or, to take an extreme example, a Jewish jeweller refusing to inscribe “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck ” on a wedding band.

Within the Australian legal context, the refusal to supply a wedding cake to a same-sex couple would be a clear breach of the Sex Discrimination Act, which since the 2013 amendments makes it unlawful to refuse supply to persons because of their gender.

There should, however, be space for, say, a socially progressive non-religious feminist baker to decline a request for a biblical inscription on a wedding cake that reads “A wife will serve and obey her husband,” for the same reason a religious baker should be free to say “no” to a groom and groom wedding cake topper.

There is nothing special about religion. As Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, religious freedom applies to all beliefs, including atheistic and non-religious ones. So why make special legal arrangements for religion in the marketplace, as the Ruddock Religious Review Panel has been set up to consider?

If we go down the path where proprietors of religious conviction are legally compelled to accede to a request that contradicts their moral beliefs, then the same demand must extend to all proprietors.

The Christian baker would be legally compelled to inscribe an ISIS slogan on a wedding cake, the Muslim baker would be required to configure a wedding cake displaying the Prophet Mohamed in a sexually promiscuous position, and, to take another extreme example, the Jewish tailor would be required to accede to a request for a swastika-studded wedding tuxedo.

It is not the role of lawmakers to determine which words and phrases are permissible or impermissible on a wedding cake. To do so is to threaten the very thing that the Ruddock’s Religious Freedom Review Panel was to set up to do, which is to protect the freedom of beliefs.

There is enough protection in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to ensure that offensive, humiliating or intimidating words based on race, colour or national or ethnic origin is contained.

In a pluralistic liberal democracy such as ours, all businesses ought to be free to reject a certain customised request, but they do so at the risk of social backlash and financial calamity.

Bigotry is not smart business. It is bad business. Alternatively, a religious business, just like any business, can implement inclusive store policies that will broaden its customer base and ensure greater profits.

This is what most Australians see a good business.

All the more reason.