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‘Exemption’ implies special treatment but religious freedom is a fundamental right

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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

If you haven’t noticed, we are in the middle of a federal election campaign, with politics and promises dominating our headlines. It can all be a bit much and we can be tempted to switch off from all of the rhetoric, particularly during such a long pre-election period.

But one aspect of the campaigning that has caught my attention is the discussion on the removal of religious “exemptions” to federal anti-discrimination laws.

The same topic must have also caught the attention of our own Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, because he penned a response to the proposal in last weekend’s Weekend Australian.

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He pointed out that if a member of the Greens were a climate change sceptic, or was anti-abortion and pro-traditional marriage, they’d probably lose their place in that party.

He commented that the Greens are entitled to select people who represent their values and simply asked that the same allowances be afforded to the Church.

The reason the Greens do not require exemptions from anti-discrimination laws but Churches might need them is because it is not illegal to discriminate against a person for their views on climate change. But it illegal to discriminate on grounds relating to sex, gender identity and relationship status, all of which come into play when we discuss issues of sexual morality.

The reason the Greens and other political groups do not need an exemption from anti-discrimination laws is not because they do not discriminate, but because the grounds on which they do discriminate are not protected by law. We need to be clear on this point. “Exemptions” to anti-discrimination laws do not give the Churches any special legal advantage. The “exemptions” level the playing field.

That’s why I do not like to use the word “exemption”.

It implies special treatment. But freedom of religion – not only the right to worship but the right to manifest your beliefs in the public square (including through the operation of schools and other institutions) – is a fundamental human right from which no derogation may be made. The right to be free from discrimination does not share the same status.

That’s not my opinion. It comes from the Siracusa principles, which are guidance notes for the interpretation of International Human Rights documents.

Importantly, removal of so-called “exemptions” would have a profound impact on the operation of the Church, our schools and other institutions.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 prohibits, among other things, discrimination on the basis of sex and relationship status but includes an “exemption” for the ordination of priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order, the training or education for such roles or the selection for other duties or functions when it comes to religious observance.

It also allows a school, university or other educational institute to discriminate on matters related to sex, gender identity, relationship status and pregnancy if it is done “in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed”.

Similar laws and “exemptions” relating to discrimination on the basis of religion are found in the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986.

What would it look like if the religious “exemptions” were removed from these laws, and the Church was afforded no protections under them?

The Church would be guilty of unlawful discrimination for refusing to ordain women or married men.

A man, married or single, could be one of our Josephite Sisters or a Little Sister of the Poor and the Christian Brothers and Marist Brothers would have to be open to women.

Seminaries would be co-ed, and any parishes with male-only altar servers would be guilty of discrimination.

You could not discriminate against an atheist seeking to be the principal or religious education co-ordinator of a Catholic school, nor could a person who identified as transgender be denied employment as a teacher. The removal of Catholic staff could see programs like the so-called “Safe Schools” being taught in our Catholic schools.

Why would you choose to pay the extra money to send your children to a “Catholic” school if the law removes the ability for the school to maintain its Catholic identity?

The so-called “exemptions” are not in place to condone the harbouring of prejudice under the banner of religious teaching. Indeed, Catholic teaching calls us out of the discrimination we might otherwise have and towards seeing others as our brothers and sisters.

The schools, hospitals, aged care and social service facilities in Australia which have Catholic teaching at their heart have served the poor and needy without discrimination for centuries. It is in everyone’s interest to allow them to continue this great work unhindered by political manouvring.

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