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Catholics and freedom of religion

  • 13 October 2022
Freedom of religion, a matter of national interest still to be resolved successfully in the Federal Parliament, has yet again become a focus for the nation’s football codes. The Essendon Football Club in the Australian Football League has followed Manly in the National Rugby League and the NSW Waratahs in the Rugby Union Super League in being caught up in controversy.  

Yet again it has been the conflict between negative attitudes towards homosexuality and support for social inclusion which has become the inflammatory issue. In the Super League it was Israel Folau’s public posts calling homosexuality sinful. In the NRL it was some players refusing to wear a Pride jumper because of their cultural and religious beliefs. 

At Essendon FC it involved a controversy over its recently appointed CEO, Andrew Thorburn, formerly the National Australia Bank CEO, who resigned after just 24 hours in the job. Thorburn is the chairman of the City on the Hill group of conservative Anglican churches, whose Melbourne church, in a 2013 sermon, used extravagant language to compare the record of abortion to that of concentration camps, and condemned homosexual acts as sinful.

When asked by the Essendon board to choose between his role at the church and his new job at the football club, Thorburn chose his church governance role, for which there is no Catholic equivalent for a lay person, over football and resigned, warning of threats to freedom of religion. The club, however, framed the choice as an irreconcilable tension between the club’s inclusive values and conservative Christian values. It soon became a national issue. Among Thorburn’s supporters was the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Michael Steed, who issued a statement on behalf of the conservative legal think tank, Freedom for Faith. 

Club members and supporters played a major role on both sides. The Purple Bombers, the club’s official LGBTIQA+ supporter group, were critical of the appointment and welcomed Thorburn’s resignation, but the highest profile participants were two Catholics: the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, and the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli. Both were Essendon members. They too did not hold back and used strong language. 

Mr Andrews condemned Thorburn’s church for bigotry and hatred and expressed disappointment in Essendon’s appointment, although he indicated that he would maintain his membership.  

'The promise by the new Labor government, to legislate for freedom of religion before the end of its first term will turn out to be another big