The social cost of religious freedom

Chris Fotinopoulos / 01 May 2016

Conservative religious groups need to respect views on sexuality that run counter to their own, just as they demand the right to live by their own principles, argues Chris Fotinopoulos.

Source: The social cost of religious freedom

Australia affirms its commitment to religious freedom by affording religious organisations exemptions from ...

Australia affirms its commitment to religious freedom by affording religious organisations exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

In light of the protection laws religious institutions enjoy today, it can be said that Australian society is remarkably tolerant.

Take a drive along any major highway in Australia and you will no doubt pass a multitude of dwellings devoted to numerous deities, each with their distinct mark of worship on public display.

Apart from the exclusive nature of certain cults, most churches are welcoming. Their doors are open to those who seek spiritual respite from secular life, offering holy balms for society’s secular sores.

As much as most churches are open to all, they are also free to shut out those who do not comply with its ethos or threaten to injure the sensitivities of its congregants.

This also applies to religious schools. Although most independent religious schools are accepting, they have the right to choose who comes through their doors.

This was emphasised early this year when a Sydney Catholic school cancelled a speaking visit from an award-winning gay author because the school deemed his new book, which included a gay character, as inappropriate.

In spite of public protestations, the school defended its decision on the grounds that parents, who are essentially its stakeholders, would not be happy with such a book being promoted in a Catholic school.

Allowing this school, as with any independent religious organisation, to conduct its affairs within a strict moral code, no matter how regressive or offensive it may be to others is, it seems, the social cost of religion.

Unlike theocracies and mono-cultural regimes in other parts of the world, Australia affirms its commitment to religious freedom by affording religious organisations exemptions from its anti-discrimination laws.

As stated in section 75(2) of the Equal Opportunity Act, an exemption is made for religious purposes that (a) conforms with the doctrines of the religion; or (b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of people of the religion.

Sadly, these exemptions provide no legal protection to LGBTI teachers and students at some religious schools and institutions. But this, once again, seems to be the social cost of religion.

Thankfully, most religious schools do not seek exemptions from the Equal Opportunity Act. In fact, the independent Anglican school that I teach at has been pro-active in ensuring that all students, and in particular those who identify as GLBTI, are safe, secure and respected.

There are, however, some religious schools that are not as accommodating. And it is these schools that test our tolerance.

Tolerance is emptied of ethical significance when confined to innocuous and inoffensive views. It is when society is confronted with lawful yet ethically unpalatable practices that its tolerance is truly tested. And tolerating a church’s right to discriminate on the basis of a myopic interpretation of scripture is one such test.

If any organisation understands the importance of boundaries, it is the church. Conservative religious figures are particularly quick to point to the boundary that distinguishes church from state when it comes to defending the right of the church to conduct its affairs in accordance with the tenets of its faith, yet are miraculously blind to the same boundary when it comes to the delivery of secular programs in state schools.

More to the point, right-wing religious activists defend the right of the church to conduct its affairs no matter how offensive it is to others, yet see it as their God-given right to interfere and indeed thwart worthy secular education programs.

This was particularly evident in the hysterical reaction to the Safe Schools Coalition initiative that saw the Australian Christian Lobby, with the support of conservative politicians of the likes of Senator Cory Bernardi, strip the national program of elements that were deemed offensive to religious sensibilities.

As noted by one of my students who is actively involved in the Safe Schools Coalition, the program is not only designed to protect GBLTI students against bullying, it also aims to raise awareness and understanding of non-traditional perspectives on sexuality.

The onus should not be on the state to dilute the Safe Schools Program out of respect for religion. Rather, it is incumbent upon religious groups to respect the right of students to access material on sexuality that is free of religious dogma, as we respect right of religious organisations to espouse dogma within their walls.

As much as conservative Christians would like to have it both ways, the division between church and state prevents them from doing so.

The public space is open to all. And it is for this reason that it must remain discrimination free, as emphasised in a slogan I encountered in a local state school, which read: This is a discrimination free zone: Homophobia and Transphobia will not be tolerated. K. Thanks.

All the more reason.