Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rights and Wrongs: Religious Freedom and Equal Opportunity in Australia

The Government of Victoria, Australia, recently pre-empted a Parliamentary review of Equal Opportunity legislation by announcing that Churches and religious groups would be exempt from the provisions of laws preventing discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, marital status and parental status.

Strictly speaking, what these exemptions offer is not discrimination as such, but an opportunity for the Church to make choices about discrimination which others will be denied. If it is possible to view this positively, it means the Churches can do freely in their own terms what the rest of society must.

There have of course been significant criticisms of the move, largely from those outside the Church concerned with legal reform and human rights, but in at least one articulate case from an Anglican bishop, John McIntyre of Gippsland. His response in the Melbourne Age encouragingly raised questions of justice, not merely of defence of privilege.

Beyond McIntyre’s voice however there is little sign that Victorian Christians will see the new situation as an opportunity to do more, rather than an excuse to do less.

At its recent Synod, the Melbourne Anglican Diocese passed a resolution expressing support for the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, and recalling with pride its own support in 1971 of decriminalization of homosexuality. This was encouraging, except that the motion was amended to remove reference to support for legal recognition of same-sex unions.

The debate on that amendment suggested a failure, not only to look beyond the fence created around the Churches by the equal opportunity exemptions, but to respect and support civil rights outside the Church. A number of speakers for instance referenced comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury about blessing gay and lesbian unions in Churches, as though these were prescriptive for determining Christian responses to rights in civil society.

Rejection of legal recognition in civil society for same-sex couples on the basis that their lifestyle is incompatible with Christianity (as was claimed in the debate, and effectively endorsed in the result) is not only a deeply questionable outcome in terms of justice but a colossal confusion of Church tradition with civil rights.

Were this logic applied elsewhere when the Church considers human rights issues, we would ask whether, for instance, an Indian student beaten up by thugs in the outer suburbs of Melbourne were a Muslim or Hindu before deciding whether they were entitled to the same legal protections as others.

Refusing to distinguish between the freedom bestowed on the Church in its internal dealings, and the necessary responsibility proper to society as a whole, undermines any claim the Churches (or at least their conservative members) might make for seeking respect for specific religious positions while affirming justice. In reality, the same logic drives exclusion in the Church and failure to support rights and freedoms outside it.

Melbourne Anglicans have half-stumbled at one hurdle; there will be many more in the future. Most obviously, Anglicans here now need to grasp the odd freedom they have been given to act unjustly in a clear and forthright way - by refusing to exercise it.