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Thorburn spent just 24 hours as CEO of Essendon before being told to choose between his CEO position and an Anglican church that believes in the sinful nature of homosexual acts and the grave evil of abortion. Photo: Daniel Anthony/Unsplash
Thorburn spent just 24 hours as CEO of Essendon before being told to choose between his CEO position and an Anglican church that believes in the sinful nature of homosexual acts and the grave evil of abortion. Photo: Daniel Anthony/Unsplash

It’s amazing it happened at all. But the Thorburn-Essendon saga looks very much like a blatant case of discrimination against Christians that should be tested at law

Andrew Thorburn should make an anti-discrimination claim or a complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman against the Essendon Football Club for religious discrimination.

For those who missed it, Thorburn spent just 24 hours as CEO of Essendon before being told to choose between his CEO position and his role as chair of City on the Hill, an Anglican church that believes in the sinful nature of homosexual acts and the grave evil of abortion.

A statement from Essendon President Dave Barham read: “The Board made clear that, despite these not being views that Andrew Thorburn has expressed personally and that were also made prior to him taking up his role as Chairman, he couldn’t continue to serve in his dual roles at the Essendon Football Club and as Chairman of City on the Hill.”

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Thorburn chose his church over his job, and submitted his resignation.

Barham strangely seems to believe that the Board acted within the law, because they didn’t ask Thorburn about his religious beliefs during the interview process, and only acted after they came to light.

“Thorburn’s case is definitely worth running as a test case for religious discrimination because it is much clearer than other recent, public examples of the same.”

He is incorrect.

The law doesn’t merely prohibit an employer asking a potential employee about their religious beliefs, it prohibits them from discriminating against current employees on the basis of their religious beliefs or activity.

For this reason, Thorburn’s case is definitely worth running as a test case for religious discrimination because it is much clearer than other recent, public examples of the same.

Remember the 17 year old Canberra girl who was sacked from her job because she posted an “It’s Okay To Say No” filter on her Facebook profile during the same-sex marriage plebiscite?

Her complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman was not successful, because the prohibition against religious discrimination in the Fair Work Act does not apply to casual employees.

That would have been a good test case, but we didn’t get there.

The-then NAB Group Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director Andrew Thorburn addresses the NAB’s 2018 AGM. He survived just 24 hours as CEO of AFL club Essendon before being forced to resign for his faith. Photo: AAP Image/Ellen Smith
The-then NAB Group Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director Andrew Thorburn addresses the NAB’s 2018 AGM. He survived just 24 hours as CEO of AFL club Essendon before being forced to resign for his faith. Photo: AAP Image/Ellen Smith

When Israel Folau was sacked, we were told his sacking wasn’t because of his religious beliefs, but because he posted about them on social media in breach of his contract with Rugby Australia.

It was an employment issue, they said, not a religious one. With the contractual issue at play, and his case settling out of court, we didn’t get to test whether an employer is allowed to dictate religious speech outside of work.

More recently, we were told that the Manly Seven were not stood down from playing because of their religious beliefs, but because in refusing to wear a jersey emblazoned with the rainbow flag, they were not in uniform, and so not following a rule made by the NRL.

Because they were not financially penalised for excusing themselves from the game, this also wasn’t the best test case for religious discrimination.

It’s still early days, but it doesn’t appear like we have any of these same complicating factors in the Thorburn saga. He actually seems more pro-LGBT than you would desire in the Chairman of a church board.

In his previous role as CEO of NAB, he even approached the AFL to propose that the NAB round be used as an LGBT Pride round.

“Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, in a display of victim-blaming so blatant that it would be comical if not so egregious, responded … by saying that such people “might want to have a think about whether they should perhaps be a bit more kind-hearted, a bit more inclusive.”

His detractors have not been able to find any public (or private) statement where he says anything against homosexuality or abortion, nor any complaint that he ever treated an employee poorly because of these issues.

The best they can do is find decade-old sermons from his church that condemn these acts as sinful.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, in a display of victim-blaming so blatant that it would be comical if not so egregious, responded to a question about whether it was no longer acceptable for people with religious ties to hold leadership roles by saying that such people “might want to have a think about whether they should perhaps be a bit more kind-hearted, a bit more inclusive.”

Yep, the football CEO who got sacked simply for being a Christian is the one with a kindness and inclusivity problem. Thanks, Dan.

It has been said that Thorburn will not pursue legal action against the club. I hope that’s untrue, because I desperately want Thorburn to take this case all the way.

I want an answer to the question of whether our legal system will protect those who profess orthodox Christian beliefs about life and marriage, gender and sexuality, against mistreatment by their employer and, I imagine, so do the millions of faithful Christians in Australia whose livelihoods depend on it.

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