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The religious freedom of LGBTIQ Christians



So far, the national debate about religious freedom has been less about religion and more about what religion should do regarding homosexuality. Perhaps this was inevitable as it was shaped by last year's debate on same sex marriage.

Light rays through a cross-shaped stained glass windowIn both discussions, being the topic of a national discussion in which LGBT people are implicitly the problem is deeply uncomfortable. But it is also an opportunity to have a more nuanced conversation than is allowed by the current polarity between secularists, who support LGBT rights, and religious, who purportedly do not.

A key problem derives from the way the discussion is framed, because it means that both sides implicitly endorse the premise that homosexuality and Christianity are incompatible. This indicates to LGBT Christians that they are anomalous, at best tolerated within their faith communities, and it renders them invisible to the broader community. It also signals to young people raised in faith traditions, who realise they are same sex attracted, that they must choose between their sexual orientation and their faith.

An example of how the secular side bolsters this is the argument that LGBT teachers should be employed for their teaching skills and that their sexual orientation is irrelevant: 'gay teachers don't teach gay maths', as Labor's Terri Butler put it. This professional/private distinction downplays the fact that teachers are mentors and role models aiding personal development, as much as they are instructors imparting information.

Despite being well intentioned, this argument offers support for the idea that LGBT teachers should compartmentalise aspects of themselves beyond the normal discretion exercised by heterosexual colleagues. One wonders where this leaves teachers who find it difficult to act straight at will.

Importantly, it also obscures the many Christian LGBT teachers working at religious schools who bring their whole selves to work in the service of Christian ethics. They don't see a trade-off between their faith and their sexuality. They bring a unique set of skills, experiences and sensibilities, as LGBT teachers.

The religious side, or at least the views put by the ACL and its supporters, explicitly positions homosexuality as antithetical to Christianity. They call for the othering of LGBT people by either excluding them from faith communities or demanding they repudiate their sexual identities as the price for remaining. Both responses are cruel and based on the misconception that sexual orientation is a choice.


"It is worth remembering another kind of religious freedom is at stake, that of LGBT Christians."


For Christians who support LGBT rights in the secular sphere and want to welcome them into their faith communities, there is work to be done. Part of this is scriptural and is currently led by scholars like Rev. Dr Robyn Whittaker of the Uniting Church, who interprets biblical texts in light of the historical and cultural contexts in which they were written, not to diminish their relevance to contemporary Christians but to elucidate and renew what is essential about the Christian message.  Dr Whittaker was a noteworthy supporter of same sex marriage last year, explaining in detail why the New Testament should not be read as condemnatory.

Many Catholics would argue their approach to scripture is less literalist than many protestants, so scripture is perhaps not as great an impediment to Catholic acceptance. However, the Catholic emphasis on natural theology and canon law presents a different sort of obstacle, one that sees the official view of homosexuality as 'intrinsically disordered'.

This is not a view foremost in the minds of most Australian Catholics or that of Pope Francis, but nonetheless as Fr Frank Brennan SJ acknowledged on ABC television last year, it's a rule that's still on the books. The apparently more compassionate view encapsulated in the slogan 'love the sinner, not the sin' is in fact no better, as it seeks to render the intrinsic human sexuality of LGBT people extraneous, and therefore excisable.

Contemporary Australian Catholics are a more diverse group than either the ACL position or the official definition allow. They know LGBT people in their faith communities, their workplaces at Catholic schools and health services, and their families. I was taught at a Catholic school by a number of men whom I later came to know were gay. They were men of great of intellect, faith, sensitivity and culture who gave me access to a spiritual language and a cultural trove that has imbued my life with meaning ever since. This was their unique gift.

In my lifetime Catholics responded to the AIDS crisis with compassion and bravery when there was scarce of either in the mainstream community. And when it came to the question of whether same sex relationships should be regarded as equal before the law, Catholics overwhelmingly voted yes.

Both the same sex marriage discussion and the current religious freedom debate are uncomfortable for LGBT Australians and for some religious people. But it is worth remembering another kind of religious freedom is at stake, that of LGBT Christians, who are created in the image of God, who are imperfectly practising their faith and who have heard that all are one in Christ Jesus and salvation is for all who believe in him.



Sean SlavinSean Slavin is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW and a part time student of theology at the University of Divinity.

Topic tags: Sean Slavin, LGBTIQ, discrimination, same sex marriage



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Existing comments

When religions begin to discriminate against those variations in mental, physical and physiological characteristics typical of the human being, then it might be understandable that they discriminate against sexual orientation variants in human beings also.

john frawley | 17 October 2018  

There are tags other than the four attached to this article. I can't think of a pithy tag for The Primacy of the Human Person. Because the Catholic Church accepted Thomas Aquinas's application of Aristolean Philosophy to Christian Theology & Ethics the Church has tended to concentrate on the Essence of things & have discerned what it believes that Essence to be derives certain moral principles. Thomism is brilliant Metaphysics. Speaking in general terms here; it was not until the 21st century that developments in Genetics, Psychiatry & Psychology led to the amorphous Philosophy of Existentialism. While Thomas may have deduced that the Essence of God is to Exist. God is the One Necessary Being. From this thesis he was able to discuss the attributes of God. But when it comes to contingent human beings their amazing variety in maturation, social interaction, & inevitable death presented a multiplicity of variatons. Essentialism was not the answer. It was a Procrustean Bed. Existentialism led us out of the torture chamber of moral prescriptions into the freedom of each idividual's Existential experience. The result has been extremes of moral dictatorship & licentious anomie. With the average punters stuck in the middle.

Uncle Pat | 18 October 2018  

Religious people don’t “call for the othering of LGBT people.” Rather, too many issues are used by activists to push political agendas. Homosexuality is one such issue. LGBT activist, Melbourne-born Peter Tatchell, has praised the UK Supreme Court’s ruling in the Asher’s Bakery case where bakers refused to decorate a cake with the words “Support Gay Marriage.” The bakery argued that it opposed the political message requested by gay man Gareth Lee rather than his sexual orientation. The court agreed, unanimously. Tatchell said, “This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression…Businesses can now lawfully refuse a customer’s request to emblazon a political message if they have a conscientious objection to it…The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people.” In fact it was the Equality Commission that had discriminated against Christians by persecuting them for holding onto their moral principles. Too often radical activists use discrimination as an excuse to force others to violate their consciences. To force people to assent to what they believe to be untrue, is to make them lose their sense of probity, and the person’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded. An emasculated society is easy to control.

Ross Howard | 18 October 2018  

I feel if a faith school is going to get tax money, they they don't get the right to discriminate period Let's flip this on it's head... Can a Public, secualr school then be allowed to discriminate against a Christian Teacher for the same reason you mentions as being a moral mentor and role model? I mean Christianity isn't doing so great in the care of children lately has it

John | 19 October 2018  

Poor Sean must be scratching his head wondering what the equivocal nature of these comments say about a resounding Catholic response to his fine article. May I say that, as a Gay Catholic, I most unequivocally agree with his theology.

Dr Michael Furtado | 19 October 2018  

I commend Sean for this balanced and thoughtful treatment of the topic. Debate in the public sphere here , on other topics as well as this, seldom shows balance, let alone regard to relevant facts. Regarding the argument that any institution that "discriminates" if they receive any form of tax benefit, there are many angles that could be run counter to it, but one simple one is this: is not tax paid (and therefore tax benefits also paid) by people of all shades of belief, both for and against the issues raised here? To withhold tax benefits because of one view would seem to discriminate against those of different persuasions, as to how their tax contributions are distributed.

Dennis | 22 October 2018  

Ross Howard, if the political agenda of the “activists” you refer to seek human dignity, respect and equality for LGBTI people, then how could you fault that?

Aurelius | 23 October 2018  

Ross Howard, your view about personal conscience is something with which I have struggled in regard to this issue. I suppose it comes down to where one draws the line. There are probably people around who think that black people should still be down the back of the bus, but at what point does the rest of society say, "Enough is enough! You don't get to say that anymore."? I have tried to be tolerant with Christian friends who are intolerant of same-gender-attracted (SGA) people and who tell me it is a "choice". But you know what? I am sick of being tolerant of such bigotry. I am sick of, around Christians, keeping quiet about the fact that two of my three children are SGA. Silenced, not because *I* have an issue with this, but because *they* do and I loathe to hear their views. I think a point of critical mass has been reached. *Their* views belong down the back of the bus.

BPLF | 24 October 2018  

BPLF, At what stage of their development is the application to children and adolescents of acronymic labels ("LGBTIQ"", "SSAGD". etc) that stereotype their personhood on the basis of sexual orientation appropriate? Perhaps it is in order to avoid deleterious effects of such assignations, self-applied or imposed, that, Edmund Rice Education Australia does not employ this nomenclature in its "Safe and Inclusive Learning Communities Statement", or because the EREA formulators of the statement are aware of the doctrinal concerns of such labeling expressed by participants in the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment?

John | 25 October 2018  

BPLS, I agree with everything you write - but let's be careful about attempts to clearly define whether sexual orientation is a choice or genetic, nature or nurture - scientists don't even know! Because in the end, isn't sexual orientation meant to be a positive attribute? What's wrong with proclaiming to the world that it's a choice. I am gay and certainly have no problem with saying it's a choice. It's not a disease.

Aurelius | 26 October 2018  

Aurelius, I cannot fathom how you could have interpreted my comments are aligning SGA with a disease state! My comments were to do with whether one can choose one's sexual attraction. Whether SGA arises from nature or nurture is not the point. Whatever the background to one's orientation, it (usually) is what it is once it manifests itself. For most people, there appears to be no choice in the matter once sexual maturation occurs. If you feel that for some, there *is* a choice, perhaps you are referring to bi-sexuality. I was not writing about bi-sexuality but about same-gender attraction.

BPLF | 29 October 2018  

BPLF, I am also referring to same sex attraction, which is a spectrum which may also include bisexuality. The only conclusion that’s logical from a definite conviction that sexual orientation cannot be a choice is that it’s something negative. Why can’t I as a gay man happily admit that my sexuality is a choice?

Aurelius | 31 October 2018  

Aurelius, brown hair is not a choice, nor is it a negative thing. I cannot follow your argument. Many things that are either innate and/or the result of environmental factors are not chosen. It doesn't mean that they are then, by definition, negative characteristics.

BPLF | 06 November 2018  

John - if your question was not meant to be rhetorical - I do not think that the labelling of children or adolescents is appropriate at all. From my understanding, any certainty about one's orientation takes time to develop. Some people reach adulthood before they feel sure. Therefore, to label children or teens seems highly premature. Nevertheless, some nomenclature is needed when discussing issues pertaining to adults, such as those issues thoughtfully outlined in the article above. One of my adult sons is a practising Catholic, faithful to the teachings of Christ AND is in a same-gender relationship. To discuss how and if my son, and others like him, may continue to 'fit' into Catholicism, or not, requires language. I too find the acronyms reductive and yet they are necessary when discussing adults. That said, it would be a blessing if someone could come up with a better label than LGBTIQ!

BPLF | 07 November 2018  

BPLF, my clumsy and hurried argument is simply that homosexual orientation is regarded as an inherently negative thing by society at large, and many/most LGBTI people go with the flow by simply and unnecessarily declaring they were born that way. There is no need to be having this debate at all because it’s irrelevant and even the best scientists don’t know the answer. Once again, what’s so scary about choice?

Aurelius | 13 November 2018  

Aurelius, perhaps we can agree that being SGA is not a negative thing and disagree on the choice aspect. I can only speak for myself on this - I guess true for everyone - but my heterosexuality is not a choice. I have no say in it at all. Hopefully, in time we will move further away from being gay being viewed in a negative way, yet still there will always be some losses. Some hopes and dreams inevitably go by the wayside for those who are gay, and for their families. People who are gay and partnered cannot give birth to the biological children of their joint union. This, for many individuals, and other family members too, is a great loss. Grief and loss which may also need to be expressed and acknowledged as part of the equation. That has been my experience anyway.

BPLF | 21 November 2018  

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