News Item

Religious Discrimination Bill: myth-busting the activists’ myths

While most of the world has been occupied with coronavirus, I have learned, yet again, that effective activism never sleeps.

Quiet campaigning against the Religious Discrimination Bill has continued, and it’s been spearheaded by various news articles and a slick Equality Australia PR effort which has included spokespeople like the former Olympians Ian Thorpe and Lauren Jackson.

And a lot of the things that have been said have been dubious – or actually, frankly, untrue.

It’s time for some myth-busting.

Three main areas of concern are being expressed by the campaigners:

The third one is, I think, the most egregious error on their part. We’ll put that last. We’ll start with the others.

Firstly, regarding religious organisations, the claim is made that they can discriminate in the selection of their staff to prefer those who share their faith and uphold their codes of conduct.

On this point, they are correct. But that’s really not controversial. That is something that religious bodies already do in all states as far as I’m aware.

The thing about the bill, of course, is that it simply clarifies the law on this matter, making it nationally consistent and making it clear that it can be done,  because the ‘patchwork’ of state laws together are unclear, with different wordings.

So it clarifies what’s already happening. And it’s not just religious bodies that do this. This is a long-standing practice which is shared by other kinds of entities.

For example, a political party: is it irrelevant for, say, the Greens to “discriminate”, that is, to select staff who promote their values?

Well, of course it’s not discrimination for them to select staff who share their ethos. You can’t have your people promoting the policies of an opposition party or going against what is core Greens policy.

Now, there are exemptions for political parties in many anti-discrimination laws because the whole enterprise of politics falls apart if you don’t allow parties to have their own ethos.

It’s ironic to me, then, that so many politicians, including Fiona Patten (whom I debated at the Press Club not long ago), can’t see the validity of that same practice in other contexts.

It’s a form of hypocrisy.

Of course it’s not irrelevant for a religious body that promotes Christian faith, or any faith, to consider someone’s faith when it comes to their employment in that organisation. The integrity and the ethos of the organisation are at stake.

Some raise concerns that there are quite a few religiously-run charities, aged care facilities, healthcare facilities, et cetera. They say, “Well, it’s not fair to have so many of these types of institutions with a faith-based preference for hiring.”

And here’s another thing: if you feel very strongly about it, then you can start your own ethos-based organisation if you really want to.

In fact, many have. There are, for example, LGBT legal clinics, health clinics, advocacy centres, services and political bodies.

And you wouldn’t expect Equality Australia, for example, to employ an evangelical Christian from a church that enshrines traditional marriage in its statement of faith. It shouldn’t have to. Why would it? It doesn’t make any sense.

Ethos-based entities are valid, they make sense, and they’re not unjust. That’s why freedom of association is a thing. It’s not controversial. It certainly isn’t unjust discrimination.

Secondly, regarding religious health practitioners, activists are concerned about the denial of access to medical care.

Let me quote to you from former High Court Justice Michael Kirby. He’s made the following claim in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Under this legislation, a range of health professionals, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, would be empowered to deny treatment to those who did not share their religious beliefs.”

But this is false. That is not what the bill allows.

Denying treatment to someone based on their religion will remain illegal and wrong. It’s not going to change.

What the bill actually permits is this: in very limited circumstances, people can make a faith-based conscientious objection to performing certain health services – for example, a Christian midwife, or indeed a midwife of any of a number of faiths, being asked to abort a baby; or a person of faith being asked to prescribe hormone therapies, particularly in relation to young people.

Health professionals can conscientiously object under this legislation, but state law and rules prevail, and this only applies in the absence of a relevant rule.

Further, the conscientious objection is only permitted if such a decision by the health practitioner does not adversely impact someone’s health or result in the provision of the necessary health service being withheld. In other words, it’s only possible where there’s somebody else to step in.

Nobody gets hurt. The patient gets the treatment and the doctor’s conscience is intact.

The activists seem awfully keen on making others feel the pain of a hurt conscience, whether it’s forcing them to make a wedding cake, print a T-shirt with a certain message on it, or perform an abortion.


Why force someone to violate their conscience when no-one is being impeded from accessing the service that they want?

Thirdly (and this is the most misrepresented one), there are the concerns about speech.

The activists say that the bill will enable hurtful and hateful speech.

This results from the part of the bill that says that large commercial employers, more than $50 million turnover per year, may not impose rules of conduct which unreasonably limit any of their employees’ statements of their religious belief outside of work hours, provided those statements are made in good faith, are not malicious, and are not likely to harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify.

Activists have given a bunch of untrue examples. Take these three:

  1. A single mother who, when dropping off her child at day-care, may be told by a worker that she’s sinful for denying her child a father.
  2. A student with a disability who may be told by a teacher that their disability is a trial imposed by God.
  3. A person of a minority faith who may be told by a retail assistant from another religion that they are a “heathen destined for eternal damnation”.

Here are the problems with examples like these:

Firstly, the conduct in question is happening at work, so the bill does not affect it at all. The bill is for statements of belief outside of work.

Secondly, even if the conduct is at work, it would be reasonable according to the definitions within the bill for an employer to say, “Hey, don’t insult customers, don’t insult students, don’t insult fellow employees – because it’s bad for business. It’s bad for staff morale.”

But here’s the biggest problem: none of this conduct is currently illegal.

Surprise! It’s perfectly legal to say silly things to people.

And where are all these bigoted religious people telling random customers that they’re “heathen destined for damnation”?

“Heathen”? What century are we in?

This is the thing that grinds my gears the most. The question that comes to mind when I read this is Who do they think we are?

The suggestion in all of this is that if you give Australians with faith an inch, they will start walking around pouring out scorn, abuse and venom in a way that’s either unwise or malicious, and has very little relevance to their actual faith.

It’s dog-whistling; it’s prejudiced; it’s designed to create a false stigma and play into people’s false understandings of what others believe.

There are two further examples that I picked up from an article in The Guardian that I want to mention.

First, they say, “A Christian might say that unrepentant sinners will go to hell.”

Well, that’s not unlawful. Imagine wanting that simple statement to be made unlawful, and worrying that the bill might further enable it to be made – even though it’s not unlawful already!

Second, they say that a woman may be told by a manager outside of work that women should submit to their husbands or that women should not be employed outside of the home.

Well, okay, maybe that happens. But are you telling me that reaching into somebody’s private setting or dinner party, where a comment like that could be made, is relevant here? (And I don’t, by the way, see how a woman not working outside the home has got anything to do with Christianity. I don’t know of a church that would endorse that view.)

This is something as pedestrian as a mildly offensive comment to some people in a private setting. This should be illegal?

It’s crazy talk. Guess what? It’s not currently illegal, so the bill isn’t going to affect it.

Now, what about these for some examples?

What about Peter Fitzsimmons on Twitter? “Definition of a born again Christian: twice too often.” Or his comment that religion is “belief in a magical skydaddy”.

What about Kyle Sandilands live on radio: “You might believe everything that’s written down 2,000 years ago to be absolutely accurate, and good on you, but you’re as dumb as— [expletive deleted]”.

What about Benjamin Law, Clementine Ford, Magda Szubanski, Ricky Gervais…

I could list names like this all day. I had a bunch of examples on paper from these people and others, but I couldn’t include them here because they’re so offensive, full of expletives and highly sexualised.

(Incidentally, name me a celebrity, journalist, TV commentator or comedian who says such virulently abusive and malicious things about, for example, issues of sexual identity.)

The point is, it’s time to stop trying to find inequality under every rock, time to stop reaching into people’s private lives to make their conversations just the way you’d like them to be, time to stop trying to ban statements that represent someone’s faith in the words of the Bible itself.

Sometimes someone will say something you don’t like to hear; and maybe it’s something they should not have said.

That’s the tiny little price that we pay for the very great big gift of freedom. It’s a price that I pay as a Christian.

People hate me and they let me know in terms that I’d never dream of using against them. But that’s okay. I have total confidence in my beliefs. I don’t mind the criticism. I’ll take it.

I’m happy to talk. I’m happy to be challenged. I’m happy to have a disagreement. It doesn’t kill me. I’ll get on with it and live in that tension.

Really, that’s the way we should all be.

Talking about this campaign, let me say this: for people who claim to be against stigma, they’re sure good at creating stigma. They’re painting people of faith as the kind of rude bigots that they simply are not.

What I would say to you is this: don’t be fooled by the campaigns and the rhetoric about discrimination, because they are not true.

Sometimes you’ll hear things you don’t like, but to send the message that it’s not okay to hear things you don’t like could carry a very grave and serious cost indeed. It could sacrifice a great many of our freedoms.

I’m willing to live in the tension.

Everybody needs to be willing to live in that tension.


Because sometimes you hear things you don’t like and then you end up later on realising that they were true.

I’ve done that. That’s called character. It’s called growth. It’s called developing and changing – and that’s really important.

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