Think You Can Outrun a Tsunami? Good Luck.

If Christian groups offering public services based upon, and bounded by, their religious convictions, think that they have time on their side to manoeuvre around anti-discrimination laws , they are fooling themselves.  Just last week I heard an excellent talk from Freedom for Faith which quoted an eminent silk (off the record), that what he thought would take fifteen years to unravel has taken just three.

Oh, and he used the “tsunami” word to describe what is happening in the realm of religious freedoms and exemptions.  Sounds a bit OTT doesn’t it? Sounds so unlike a silk, at least the ones I know from TV. (I actually know a real live one too, and he’s as sober as a judge).

So we are headed for interesting times, and there’s little chance that Christian organisations that offer public services will outrun the torrent of anti-discrimination legislation headed their way. Put simply Australia’s anti-discrimination laws are swamping religious public services – and quickly.

Take this, for instance, in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper today, in which the Victorian State Government is refusing to countenance any exemptions for religious based adoption organisations, who have a religious conviction against providing adoption for gay couples.

Minister for Equality (yes, that’s a real thing), Martin Foley, said that there will be no forms of discrimination left in the Act, by which I take it to mean there will be forms of discrimination, but not the forms that are in place now.  After all, we’re not countenancing everyone being able to adopt are we? Surely not.  Anyway, this is how The Age reported it today:

Asked last week if the government would provide faith-based protections, Mr Foley told The Sunday Age: “We are approaching this issue on the basis that we are seeking to remove discrimination from the Adoption Act – at any level. So I’m not sure how instituting, as NSW have done, a lesser form of discrimination … is a good outcome in the interest of the child.

The Australian Christian Lobby had argued for the exemptions on the basis that other organisations would be able to provide this service to gay couples.  Mr Foley is adamant that the new legislation, which will bring Victoria into line with other states including Western Australia and Tasmania, will go through unchanged.

Cultural change becomes political change becomes legal change.  That’s what happens and when it does it happens quickly.  Christians need to face up to the fact (as do Muslims, Jews, and other faiths in our country), that calls for religious exemptions are simply going to fall on deaf ears.

And it’s not as if all of those non-religious types drafting and enacting legislations are evil and pernicious.  They’re not.  They simply don’t understand how a person’s religion has to extend beyond the church/mosque/synagogue. Our culture has created a narrative that views religious conviction as opinion, rather than based on fact, and opinions are private, untestable and untenable when it comes to shaping public policy.

Rest assured though, that means there will be no need to censor our sermons or services (in the near future at least) in our churches, because as long as what we do stays there then non-religious people feel that religious freedom is being granted to us. That’s the standard line, and it allows policy makers to refuse exemptions in, er, good faith.

That of course misunderstands the very notion of faith and how it bleeds into every part our our lives.  There seems to be no understanding in such public debates that the very driver for Christian organisations in the public square is that faith is never privatised.  It cannot be.

It all seems to be such a zero-sum game. Organisations will either have to shut down or shut up.  And we can be sure that anti-discrimination law will leave no area of public amenity funded by churches or faith based groups untouched.  How long will that take?  Who knows, but if the eminent silk is right, think of a figure in years and divide it by five.

So here’s hoping your kids in their middle-priced faith based education system are half way through high school already, because once that government funding is cut on the basis of the school’s inability to sign off on anti-discrimination law in regards to who it employs, your fees are going to go through the roof!   If you’ve often wondered whether a secular framework is robust enough to cope with alternative ethical communities, the current battles wouldn’t give you any confidence.

Now you for one may welcome our new anti-discrimination overlords (thank you Kent Brockman), because you simply believe that religious groups are wrong on these issues and need to get with the times.  I get that.  And as someone with more than a glancing suspicion towards the expectation of many Christians in the public square that they are owed a seat at the table, I have zero expectation of our culture’s ability to cope with deep difference (oh irony of ironies), nor do I see the success or failure of Jesus’ mission in the world depending on it.

But the issue is deeper than that. It’s got longer fingers that reach into deeper crevices.  A fundamental human right, the freedom of religion, is being – and will increasingly be – overridden by what is now seen as an even deeper fundamental right, the right to non-discriminiation.   That much is obvious.  Here’s The Age again:

The minister’s comments are the first time the government has signalled how it will tackle the vexed question of religious freedom when it introduces its reforms.

The “vexed question”?  Religious freedom is now a vexing issue. It’s no longer a given, no longer something that we tamper with at our peril.  No longer seen as the final intrusion into someone’s deeply held construct. When did that become the predominant viewpoint?  When did anti-discrimination laws over-ride religious freedom laws? When did such laws became vexing?   Religious freedom is now the pesky fly in the ointment of a society free from discrimination. Now that is vexing indeed.

For many Christian organisations it will simply mean packing up their bat and ball and going home.  Religious convictions will override pragmatism, something that secularists – thinking and unthinking ones alike – don’t really grasp.  It will mean many services simply being left to the state to pick up and fully fund elsewhere, but that would seem to be a small price to pay for governments such as those in Victoria, although a rather larger price to pay for Victorian taxpayers.

Anyhow, let’s be grateful for our decidedly gay, decidedly non-religious, decidedly pro-same-sex-marriage Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who has stepped into this fray with aplomb.  He has been saying for some time that religious freedoms are not being protected by recent anti-discrimination and same-sex-marriage legislation. And he’s backing up his words by agreeing to speak at Freedom For Faith’s upcoming one-day conference at the University of Newcastle, entitled “Religious Freedom in a Multicultural World.”  I will link the talks on my blog when they are available.

If you want to attend the conference in Newcastle, you can find registration details  and more information here

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