Chickening out of a challenge
When it comes to anti-discrimination, why are governments always so reluctant to hold religious organisations to the very standards governments themselves set?
It’s easy at first blush to blame the “mafia” – to assume the many Christian-identifying MPs in both Labor and the Coalition are planted in state and federal parliaments to defend their churches’ interests and discriminatory practices.
No doubt that’s part of the problem. But the more pressing issue for any government is surely the fear that, should they compel faith-based organisations to conform to anti-discrimination provisions – particularly around LGBTI employees – those organisations will pick up their bat and ball, head home in a sulk and no longer provide services or resources.
Governments effectively outsource welfare responsibilities when they partially fund organisations like the Catholic Church, which is one of Australia’s biggest private employers and welfare providers. And they’re simply not prepared to risk demanding a faith-based organisation comply with their own anti-discrimination laws, only to see that organisation walk away from the service(s) they provide, leaving a yawning gap for which governments don’t have the finances, resources or, presumably, interest in filling.
In theory, senator Doug Cameron is of course right when he points out that “churches, education groups or hospitals [that] are taking Government money… should have no right to discriminate against their fellow Australians”. In practice, however, forcing such churches not to discriminate – and withdrawing their funding or taking them to court if they do – could potentially cost a government much more in recouping lost resources than it does to keep turning a blind eye to discrimination, as it currently does and will continue to do, at least for the immediate future apparently.
Or could it? Perhaps it’s time a government didn’t blink first and actually called a church’s bluff. After all, would the thousands of hard-working employees of faith-based organisations – the teachers, nurses, care workers and so on – really be OK with their employer putting them out of work just so those higher up the hierarchy can hold their heads high about refusing to budge on teachings around the so-called “sin” of homosexuality?
As Anglicare SA CEO Reverend Peter Sandeman argues, “Jesus didn't discriminate in who he associated with and helped and neither should we”. It’s a philosophy that’s no doubt shared by thousands of other Australians employed by faith-based organisations who feel uncomfortable seeing their employer operate outside of contemporary legal and community standards.
The sad reality is that right now, no federal government – particularly a minority government so precariously balanced – is willing to play this game of Chicken with a church, especially one as powerful and cashed-up as the Catholic Church.
But never say never. The Tasmanian government played once, and won – church-run agencies are not exempted from state anti-LGBTI discrimination provisions down there.