Why religious discrimination law is a shield, not a sword (It protects free speech)

Dr Gerard Gaskin, Executive Director of Catholic Education Tasmania

The current and organised opposition to the proposed federal religious discrimination law by activists is designed to distract the Australian public and our legislators from the central principle of freedom that the proposed law seeks to preserve. Some opponents’ arguments are carefully crafted to strike irrational and unfounded fear in the hearts of Australians who always pride themselves on giving everyone – even those we don’t agree with – a “fair go”.

The opposition campaign distorts the intentions and wording of the current bill by attempting to portray it as a sword that will be used by religious organisations to victimise and persecute those of different views.

The serious problem with this approach is that it ignores the bill’s robust foundations in the principles of freedom. Instead, everything is reduced down to a strictly binary narrative. This cynical narrative reframes the debate by making it all about the interests of one ideological group or another.

Regardless of the opponents’ single-issue exception-driven advocacy, this debate is actually about the rights of any religious employer to act and teach according to their closely held beliefs and tenets. What the Catholic Church teaches on any matter is certainly no secret. Since 1992 the Catechism of the Catholic Church has provided explicit and authoritative explanations of every article of Catholic faith. Anyone who can search online can find the Catechism of the Catholic Church and inform themselves about Catholic belief and practice.

Simply, the proposed law enshrines three clear objectives:

  • Its first objective (Clause 7) is to allow religious bodies to teach and act in accord with their faith;
  • The second objective (Clause 11) is to correct recent legislation in certain states, such as Tasmania, which currently threaten the ability of religious organisations to teach what they have always believed, and;
  • The third objective (Clause 12) is to protect long-held statements of religious belief from unfair claims of discrimination.

These three objectives are all necessary to shield legitimate religious organisations from hostile state legislation and to allow them the freedom to pursue their legitimate goals – to give them the same right to free speech that every Australian has. It also allows religious organisations the freedom to teach what they believe and to employ people who agree to uphold that belief.

Dr Gerard Gaskin is Executive Director of Catholic Education Tasmania. Photo: Supplied

There has never been anything intrinsically wrong with any employer appointing only those applicants who will align with the organisation’s objectives and who intend to work towards agreed corporate goals. So, for a religious employer to employ only those staff who will uphold (or at least not actively oppose) their mission and creed, is a matter of natural justice.

Could we blame Coca-Cola for rejecting job applicants who regularly tweeted that Pepsi is the better Cola? Should we object if an LGBTQI+ advocacy group selected only employees who shared their values? Surely we ought to defend the right of employers to preference the employment of people who support their aims?

The difference is the issue of advocacy. Should a religious organisation be compelled to employ a person who actively and publicly opposes their creed, advocating for its opposite, effectively eroding their mission and purpose? I think not.

Aspiring parents and staff alike know that Catholic schools exist to teach the Catholic faith. In all good faith there are no surprises. Job interviews and enrolment meetings are open and honest. The Catholic faith is the reason for our existence and its promulgation is our mission. 

Every parent who enrols a student in Catholic education knows that the school will teach the Catholic faith, whole and entire. In our Tasmanian system of Catholic schools, the signed enrolment agreement assures parents that we will deliver a quality education that includes a comprehensive schooling in Catholic belief and practice. We assert the right to teach our faith to those who ask for it to be taught to their children. Parents exercise their right to religious freedom – freedom of belief – and they ask us to assist them to pass on the Catholic faith to their children. For us to deliver anything less would be a breach of trust and a disservice to our mission.

State anti-discrimination laws in Tasmania and Victoria, if applied strictly, potentially make it illegal for Catholic schools to teach and uphold certain tenants of Christian belief – particularly those family values which, until recently, were lived and defended by all civilised cultures. Powerful political ideologues are now using the force of state legislation to compel Catholic schools to comply with anti-Christian beliefs.

The proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is good for Australia because freedom of religion is good for Australia. The bill promises a fair go for all religions – freedom of belief – religious freedom. It’s also good for all Australians because, at its heart, it defends everyone’s equal right to free speech. It is designed to be a shield, not a sword.

Read Archbishop Julian Porteous’ opinion piece on the Religious Discrimination Bill

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