Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Religious freedom is not a zero-sum game

  • 18 October 2018
The purpose of the Ruddock review was, in part, to placate those who felt threatened by the passage of marriage equality, as illustrated by the absence of any LGBTI people on the panel. The review has undoubtedly spurred a debate about religious freedom, but it inadvertently highlighted the discrimination faced by gender and sexually diverse people to a broader audience.

Attempts to downplay the report have instead drawn attention to the fact that religious organisations and schools are largely exempt from anti-discrimination laws, allowing them to discriminate against students and employees based on their sex, sexuality, gender identity and relationship status. Schools have used these laws to refuse students with same-sex parents, to expel gay students and to sack gay teachers.

Such laws are out of step with community values. The overwhelming majority of Australians do not support discriminating against gay students and teachers, a point summarised in a joint letter from 50 LGBTI organisations: we no longer consider it fair to treat people differently because of who they are.

The laws also harm the health and wellbeing of gay people. LGBTI Australians are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, and to self-harm and attempt suicide. These adverse health outcomes are directly related to discrimination, harassment and stigma. Fear of rejection and feelings of shame directly harm young gay people. However, the discussion has revolved around talk of religious freedoms.

Some religious leaders have insisted that the exemptions remain. Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies argues that 'church schools should not be forced to play by secular rules'. Of course, the freedom to adopt, practice and abandon religious beliefs is a human right. As such, it should be protected in any future bill of rights and deserves inclusion in anti-discrimination legislation.

However, as is recognised in human rights law, religious freedoms extend only so far as they do not contradict the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. While all Australians should enjoy religious freedom, they also bear the right to non-discrimination and a right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Further, it it is unclear at first glance how positive discrimination is related to practising a religion. Some, including some ALP senators, argue that it is about maintaining a shared ethos. Shared beliefs are essential to religious communities, but these arguments would only apply in a limited number of cases.

"In the end, it is not a zero-sum competition between religious groups and gay people,