Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Lessons from Christian camp's gay discrimination


Phillip Island Adventure ResortFreedom of religion and freedom from discrimination on grounds such as sexual identity are both widely-accepted principles in Australian law and society. Sometimes however it seems that freedom from discrimination cannot be taken for granted in, or even just near, a church. Just days ago a case in point with a history stretching back some years may have reached its conclusion.

In April the Victorian Court of Appeal upheld earlier rulings of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, to the effect that a Phillip Island camp run by Christian Youth Camps Ltd, affiliated with the Christian Brethren, had discriminated illegally against same-sex attracted persons by refusing a booking from Cobaw Community Health Service for a weekend event for young gay and lesbian people.

Judges in both proceedings acknowledged readily that the refusal to grant the booking was discriminatory. The courts also found — by a majority, in the appeal — that exemptions provided in the Equal Opportunity Act to allow for religious freedom did not apply to the case. Some of the reasons are interesting and important for Christians and members of other faith communities, regardless of their attitudes to same-sex relationships.

The judgements suggest that corporations with religious roots cannot expect to apply to themselves the same sorts of exemptions that are intended to defend the beliefs and consciences of individuals.

Justice Marcia Neave, in her separate judgement supporting the rejection of the CYC appeal, went so far as to suggest that the provisions of the Equal Opportunity Act regarding religious freedom for persons (s.77) could not be applied to corporations at all, which leaves room for some interesting reflection on how religious bodies that seek incorporation, as some churches have done and are doing, manage their understandings of exemption.

Where 'religion' and its exercise by individuals is unquestionably at issue, there have still been different understandings about how it could or should be allowed as a basis for discrimination.

At the VCAT hearings, witnesses for CYC maintained that the refusal of the booking was necessary for them to conform with their doctrine of 'plenary inspiration', and hence what the Bible was understood by them to teach about homosexuality. They maintained, and more so in the course of the appeal, that the refusal of the booking was necessary for them to comply with their genuine religious belief and principles about homosexuality.

The judgements did not dismiss the possibility that such beliefs could be held in conscience, but it was not hard for the judges to point to inconsistencies.

The Christian Brethren maintain a belief — more prominent in the appeal than in the original case — that sex is only appropriate within marriage. There was little indication in evidence tendered that their belief system about marriage and sex was understood to be applied to humanity in general, let alone that it should determine how conference bookings are made.

The President of the Court of Appeal suggested the doctrine that really deserved protection was simply the belief of church members that determined their own marital lives, not a blanket understanding about sex in general that had to be applied to a wider public.

It was also clear from evidence that attempts to extend the moral domain of the church regarding sex were not applied consistently. Other secular groups who sought to book the Phillip Island Adventure Resort were not grilled as to whether pre- or extra-marital sex might take place during their stays; it was the character of the event as geared to same-sex attracted youth that spurred the discriminatory actions.

Brethren, like other Christians, affirm ideas of welcome, inclusion and hospitality, and did so in these proceedings, when pressed in the witness box. It was not clear to some of the judges any more than to other observers whether or how these doctrines were brought to bear when the Cobaw group was turned aside.

This is not really an isolated case. The churches have become accustomed to making pronouncements about welcome and acceptance, of which gay and lesbian people and their supporters are understandably wary. The tendency for Christian affirmations of acceptance to be accompanied by practical discrimination against gay and lesbian people, even in settings far outside church life in the strict sense, keeps rearing its head.

There have been prominent cases in the UK (Preddy) and the USA (Masterpiece Cakeshop) where Christians undertaking purely commercial activities for private gain and profit have wanted to refuse anything from bed-and-breakfast accommodation to cake-decorating services to same-sex couples, without giving equivalent attention to the behaviour or identity of heterosexual clients.

Some Christian traditions are reconsidering their historic marginalisation of same-sex attracted people. Others will continue to maintain a more traditional stance, at least as to the appropriate expression of sexual desire, but these too must face serious questions about their continuing support of what can only be described as homophobia — discriminating in terms of employment or of access to goods and services.

It is in any event sobering that the churches often seem to need the courts to give them lessons, if not about sex, then about hospitality and fairness.

Andrew McGowanAndrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne, and Professor in the MCD University of Divinity. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary.

Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, homosexuality, discrimination, Christian Brethren



submit a comment

Existing comments

"It was the character of the event as geared to same-sex attracted youth that spurred the discriminatory actions." You've read the decisions, Mr McGowan so you can tell us: 1. Did the court/tribunal ever bother to ask the Christian Brethren: "If it were the point of the weekend to encourage same-sex attracted youth to embrace chastity, would you have allowed them to hire the camp?" (Readers: have a look at the website of the group "WayOut" linked by the Supreme Court to the Cobaw respondent - www.wayout.org.au - and judge for yourselves if it is advocating chastity.) 2. And this question: "Did the secular non-gay groups you allowed to hire the facilities have analogous websites or literature endorsing the legitimacy of extra-marital sex?" If the court/tribunal did ask these questions, what were the CB's answers? (Can you reference this for us?) If not, then how could the court/tribunal possibly have come to a decision that it was simply the character of the group as same-sex attracted, rather than the explicit attitude of its facilitators (WayOut) to extra-marital sex, that determined the decision of CB to deny the application? Your article does not address these crucial points and as it stands simply fails to highlight what could be unacceptable Christian discrimination - something all too familiar these days and a phenomenon which one hopes would be of concern to a Warden of Trinity College.

HH | 01 May 2014  

Andrew McGowan makes some very good points here. There is considerable hypocrisy within religious bodies about their acceptance of LGBTI people. Many if not most protest their inclusiveness, only to be found wanting in day-to-day dealings - and in allowing real equality, e.g. to those gong forward for ordination.

Rodney Wetherell | 01 May 2014  

Sorry for my mangled expression in the last sentence of the post above. Try: "Your article does not address these crucial points and as it stands actually seems to reveal unjust discrimination against the Christian Brethren - something all too familiar these days and a phenomenon which one hopes would be of concern to a Warden of Trinity College."

HH | 01 May 2014  

Thank you for exposing yet another example of the primitive, bigoted attitudes of so-called Christians. Is it any wonder that young people are shunning the churches?

Montague H. Withnail | 01 May 2014  

Well put Andrew. Thanks for carefully and succinctly putting the arguments in this case and the reasons of the judgements. Of course the church has long argued that it is metaphysically other and hence subject to different (read NO) law, or ethical assessment aside from its own. While certainly according religion a place in society and the fora of debate, Australia has become increasingly wary of according the church special status and exemptions from the rules set for all. The attempt to impose the ethics of one group on the whole is also met with dismay. Learning to work in this environment forces carefully thinking about belief, practice and ethic as well as becoming aware of the lived experience of others.

Gary Bouma | 01 May 2014  

Come on HH. The Brethren (hardly a great example of a 'welcoming, inclusive and hospital able' group) are running a tax-exempt business in competition with other businesses not so fortunately placed. They are happy to take the the non-believers' dollar (though they won't sit down and eat with them) but they want to be able to pick and choose their clients on the basis of whether they offend or otherwise their own narrow prejudices. I wonder if they would complain if the hotel down the road said 'members of the Brethren' not welcome?

Ginger Meggs | 01 May 2014  

As Pope Francis has pointed out, it is not man's place but God's to judge immoral behaviour. The sad things about this article are, first, that it highlights the fact that some poor individuals seek to publicise the manner in which they gain sexual satisfaction and demand that be accepted as a moral position. This would seem to negate their own privacy and indeed perhaps even betray the partner. It is exceedingly childish in terms of mature human behaviour. And second, that the article comes from a Prof of Divinity who suggests that the Churchs need the courts to give them lessons. Perhaps he doesn't appreciate that Civil Law and legality are not necessarily equivalent to morality. It may be, Prof Mc Gowan, that the courts need a few lessons from the Churches if they (the courts) are indeed to reflect true Christianity. That of course is a long gone prospect in the modern world but that does not mean that immorality has to be embraced by Christianity in order to fit in with a corrupt self-indulgent world.

john frawley | 01 May 2014  

John Frawley, you might recall that a few weeks ago Justice McClellan gave Cardinal Pell a lecture, one might even say a catechesis, on morality/ethics, civil law and the behaviour of Catholic church leadership in their behaviour and governance record. ++Pell appeared to be somewhat surprised to hear from a civil official that in the cases of clerical child rape before the Royal Commission it was evident that there was more morality, compassion, understanding, care-for-the-person and justice embedded in Common Law than in the 'legal' behaviour of Church leadership. The irony and paradox have not been lost on the vast majority of heathens and unbelievers in post-Christian Australia.

David Timbs | 01 May 2014  

The more I contemplate this piece, the weirder it gets. "There was little indication in evidence tendered that their belief system about marriage and sex was understood to be applied to humanity in general, let alone that it should determine how conference bookings are made." What, no-one thought to open the very same Bible that was sworn on in those hearings? Extraordinary.

HH | 01 May 2014  

john frawley 01 May 2014 " it is not man's place but God's to judge immoral behaviour." Has God revealed his judgement in this matter? Or has 'man' usurped that right? " some poor individuals seek to publicise the manner in which they gain sexual satisfaction and demand that be accepted as a moral position." The use of "poor" seems to indicate a pre-judgement. Perhaps they are simply trying to counteract the prejudices that once made such acts criminal offences.. ".. the Churches need the courts to give them lessons" Not in morality, but in social cohesion and justice "if they (the courts) are indeed to reflect true Christianity...." The role of the courts is no to reflect Christianity,( even if 'true' Christianity could be determined) but social cohesion. and justice. "does not mean that immorality has to be embraced by Christianity..". Nor does it mean that Christianity has a God-given guarantee of the morality in this matter

Robert Liddy | 01 May 2014  

Good afternoon David Timbs. I do not recall any moral lesson delivered by Justice McClellan to Cardinal Pell. I do recall the Justice's misinterpreted suggestions to the Cardinal re insurance for abusing priests - a non-sensical construction by the press which attributed the faultiness of such a proposal to the Cardinal. I am also quite well aware of the ill-founded homosexual community criticisms of Cardinal Pell based entirely on his refusal to abdicate his moral responsibility as a Catholic priest at the insistence of the Rainbow Sash Movement. This is quite a different situation from that reported in this article since the Cardinal has not at anytime excluded homosexual people from the Church and has always offered his blessing to those who continued to approach him demanding he betray his moral obligations. Neither, David, do I believe that the Cardinal ever excused child rape by priests or anyone else and certainly neither do I, in keeping I am sure with your views on that matter.

john frawley | 01 May 2014  

GM, so we have here a group of people who don’t wish to have their property used to promote a lifestyle it believes to be inimical to bodily and spiritual well being. Unthinkable. How have they escaped notice so far in this glorious Age of Tolerance and Inclusion? They must be punished.

HH | 01 May 2014  

From their website http://cccvat.com.au/ these are "Open" rather than "Exclusive" Brethren. They have a section on "Resolving Everyday Conflict" on the website. Perhaps they should have attempted conflict resolution before the whole thing went belly up? I believe the weekend was one addressing the serious problem of suicide in LBGT youth which I believe is disproportionately high in comparison with the rest of the community. This is an appalling showing for the Church and its camps. They appear to have well and truly shot themselves in the foot. Sadly their effort redounds badly by association for the general Christian community. One shudders.

Edward Fido | 01 May 2014  

Commercial law should apply to anyone involved in commercial activities. This highlights yet again why churches should not be tax exempt.

Dr Phil Watters | 01 May 2014  

Robert Liddy. It would be very helpful and indeed enlightening if you were able to acquaint us with your concept of wherein morality resides. My use of the word "poor' refers in context to the lack of the fullness of development of human sexuality where genetic parenthood is impossible, something which I find very sad. There was no intention to "prejudge" since I, along with everyone else, do not possess that right. In the prescription of what is right and what is wrong, that is, moral, in the society in which we live it was predominantly the Law that wrote that prescription, and like it or lump it, that was based in Christianity - the Jude- Christian ethic of Western civilisation. In saying that, I do concede that we are doing our very best to destroy that "social cohesion and justice" to which you refer and which I know as Western Society, defined in Thomas Jefferson's "immortal declaration ' the American declaration of Independence.

john frawley | 01 May 2014  

Interesting that some posts reflect a belief that 'same sex attracted' must mean 'practising homosexual'. Surely that's not so? If the event was for 'young people' would they have been rejected on the grounds that they are heterosexual, therefore sexually active outside of marriage, therefore unwelcome? No, because there would be no questioning of their sexual practice. That's why CYC is judged discriminatory - they don't apply their principles consistently, and make judgements about only one group, the homosexual young people.

Joan Seymour | 01 May 2014  

Well said on all counts John Frawley

penny | 01 May 2014  

john frawley 01 May 2014 "Robert Liddy. It would be very helpful and indeed enlightening if you were able to acquaint us with your concept of wherein morality resides.............. Morality resides in "Loving God above all, and loving everyone as one's self." Jewish history of frequent wars and the death of many of their young men gave them an urgent need to build up their tribal strengths. They therefore equating bearing children to seem like morality. They also embraced polygamy for that same aim. Many of the Patriarchs had multiple wives. The same logic in an over-populated world would reverse the esteem for child bearing, and countenance acts that relieved sexual tensions without over-population. "the prescription of what is right and what is wrong, that is, moral, in the society in which we live......." The greatest immorality in world society is the group selfishness of religious groups who each contend that they are right and everyone else is wrong, Instead they should learn to cooperate like the limbs and organs of the human body, in the Spirit of: "One for All, and All for One",

Robert Liddy | 01 May 2014  

John Frawley suggests its not human's place to judge immoral behaviour but that's not true. I am a Catholic school teacher and I teach my students what constitutes moral behaviour - based on Christian principles vs. immoral behaviour. "judgement" is part and parcel of making moral decisions. I think we are called not to 'condemn' others, but judging another person's behaviour is part of our learning processes: we see what other people choose, we witness the fruit of that choice and then we judge whether we would want to do as they do. Moral choices that don't adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ bring pain. When we follow Christ's moral teaching we behave as we were designed to behave, and that brings the fruit of peace.

Miss Marvel | 01 May 2014  

Who is punishing them HH? If they want to keep the facilities to themselves, fine, but let them then decline Caesar's dollar (their tax exempt status). And why do you presume that the evidence taken was all sworn? (Edward Fido, I stand corrected on the open/closed status of this group; thank you)

Ginger Meggs | 01 May 2014  

To Ginger Meggs. There is difference between a hotel and a Christian youth camp. To accuse Christians of any denomination of homophobia is grossly unjust. Christians do not hate homosexuals. There are many other camps to book in for a weekend. Why so many contributors readily criticize Christian values? after all Eureka Street is a Catholic online journal.

Ron Cini | 01 May 2014  

GM, they were fined $5000 in the 2010 VCAT decision which they unsuccessfully appealed to the SCV. It's persecution.

HH | 01 May 2014  

Tax payers support 15 Victorian Catholic Hospitals that refuse to do abortions. The right to uphold religious tenets is a given in Law and Jurispudence, unless against common good Such protection is not discrimination

Father John George | 02 May 2014  

Homophobia (the thought) is not a crime Ron, after all Brandis says everyone has a right to be a bigot. But discrimination (the action) is. CYC were not persecuted for their beliefs HH, they were penalised for breaking the law in a purely commercial transaction. The only difference between a hotel and CYC offering accommodation in such a transaction is that one pays tax and the other is exempt. What’s wrong with challenging ‘Christian values’ in ES, Ron? Surely one of the strengths of the Jesuits is that they are prepared to question, challenge, argue and defend, rather than just peddle pietistic nonsense. And FrJG, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later you would raise the matter of abortion, but how on earth is it related to this debate?

Ginger Meggs | 03 May 2014  

In America there is a lot of stuff about not baking wedding cakes by bakeries who are Christian for SSM as it is against Gods law in the bible incidentally I am against this too but is this ins of thing prevalent here in Australia are the church hierarchy standing up for Christian rules and not caving n . Also quite a few teachers have been removed from Catholic schools as they turned out to be married to SSM .also n the other side of all this there had been brouhaha re religious /nun. Speaking against acceptance of SSM and the parents jumping up and down. The woman was only teaching what is Catholic doctrine ,and was castigated by so called catholic parents for teaching the truth are we serious in Australia to defend our faith

Irena | 03 May 2014  

GM, I didn't say CYC were persecuted for their beliefs as such. They were found to have broken the law by allowing their belief that homosexual sex is morally wrong to ground a refusal of use of the camp to a group which wanted to promote (among other things) the contrary belief. That's persecution.

HH | 06 May 2014  

From "The Age" (16th April) "Justice Redlich disagreed with the two other appeal judges, saying he would have allowed the CYC appeal. He believed the religious exemption applied as the refusal of the accommodation was necessary for both the CYC and the manager to comply with their genuine religious beliefs. Justice Redlich believed the exemption was intended to be available to individuals and corporations." I'm with you, Justice Redlich.

Malachi | 09 May 2014  

Will this affect Catholic schools?

Malachi | 09 May 2014  

It seems there are exemptions under Victorian discrimination law: "Religious bodies and schools may lawfully discriminate on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity when that discrimination conforms with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the doctrine, or it is reasonably necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion." http://www.lawhandbook.org.au/handbook/ch17s01s03.php

Malachi | 09 May 2014