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Thorburn case more concerning than Folau

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The Australian Human Rights Law Alliance’s John Steenhof: remarkable about this case is that Andrew Thorburn did nothing and said nothing - yet was forced to stand down from his role, says the religoius freedom lawyer. Photo: HRLA
The Australian Human Rights Law Alliance’s John Steenhof: remarkable about this case is that Andrew Thorburn did nothing and said nothing – yet was forced to stand down from his role, says the religoius freedom lawyer. Photo: HRLA

The Andrew Thorburn case is “far more concerning” than Israel Folau or other high-profile cases, according to the principal lawyer of Australia’s only religious freedom law firm.

John Steenhof, who heads the Human Rights Law Alliance, said that in Mr Folau’s case the footballer had posted material online, had a code of conduct and his club could point to a “nebulous contractual breach”.

“In this case Andrew Thorburn has said nothing. Nothing. In fact, as chairman at National Australia Bank his actions were to promote diversity,” Mr Steenhof said.

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“There’s nothing in his conduct that would suggest he’s hateful and bigoted.”

“This area of law’s largely untrammeled when it comes to religious belief and activity. It’s going to be a really interesting test case.”

Mr Steenhof thinks Mr Thorburn would have a “clear claim” under Victorian discrimination law but would likely “take some time to make a decision” about going to court.

“This area of law’s largely untrammeled when it comes to religious belief and activity. It’s going to be a really interesting test case,” Mr Steenhof said.

Unfortunately, he added, “the real human cost of these things is often lost”.

“We get to see it in our work. It doesn’t matter who you are, and how bulletproof you are, how many commissions of inquiry you’ve been in front of. When you get the cultural microscope on you it’s unrelenting.

“It’s terrible for you, your wife, your children, your wider family, and your friends.”

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

Mr Steenhof said that Christians needed to understand we are moving from “a confident pluralism into a very aggressive hard secularism”.

“There are still people in church who think as long as we’re winsome and nice and start using the same language, they’ll allow us to have our views that are unfashionable,” he said.

“Thorburn’s case shows us that’s not the case. We need to change our mindset.”

In Victoria, he added, “things are getting worse in this regard”. Around 40 per cent of inquiries made to HRLA about religious discrimination issues came from Victoria, Mr Steenhof said.

“Most inquiries to HRLA are settled before actually ending up in court, making high-profile cases like Thorburn’s potentially important to set precedents.”

“Most of the people who contact us to talk about the hostility they’re facing in their workplaces, from their employers, in the public service, are people in Victoria.”

Many Christians who contacted HRLA were concerned about how they could refrain from participation in gender and sexuality related events in the workplace without losing their jobs.

Most inquiries to HRLA are settled before actually ending up in court, making high-profile cases like Thorburn’s potentially important to set precedents.

Mr Steenhof also said that an increasing number of inquiries to HRLA came from Christians who could be described as liberal, progressive or “revisionist” rather than conservative.

Despite City on a Hill’s depiction in the media as “fundamentalist”, Mr Steenhof says the Thorburn case is an example of how progressive Christians can fall foul of public opinion.

Sydney Anglican Bishop Michael Stead. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Sydney Anglican Bishop Michael Stead. Photo: Patrick J Lee

“Andrew Thorburn I’d put in the former. He’s a guy who hasn’t said anything, and under his watch [at NAB] promulgated LGBTQ initiatives which were in the spirit of diversity, inclusion, tolerance. That’s going to happen more often.”

Freedom for Faith, a prominent Christian legal think tank, said Australians should be “deeply shocked” at the Thorburn case.

City on a Hill’s teachings “are not ‘extreme’,” Freedom for Faith chair Anglican Bishop Michael Stead said in a press release.

“They are mainstream beliefs which have been held for centuries by a wide variety of faith groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, and certainly in relation to abortion are also held as moral views by many non-religious Australians.”

“The freedom to hold and express a religious belief is a foundational human right, which Australia has committed to as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

“It appears that Andrew Thorburn has been subject to coercion to resign because of his religious belief.”

“Article 18 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to hold a religious belief and to manifest that in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

“It further guarantees that ‘no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice’.

“It appears that Andrew Thorburn has been subject to coercion to resign because of his religious belief.”

Bishop Stead said the behaviour of the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, was “very disturbing”, and renewed calls for a federal Religious Discrimination Bill.

“Freedom for Faith calls on the Albanese government to fulfil its election promise to implement a federal Religious Discrimination Bill as a matter of urgency, and to do this in such a way as to protect all Australian citizens from the kinds of religious discrimination, vilification and coercion that Andrew Thorburn has experienced,” he said.

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