November 24, 2021

Two Cheers for the Religious Freedom Bill

Well, depending on whether you read the Sydney Morning Herald (or The Age), or The Australian (I read both), you will wake up today believing the proposed Religious Freedom Bill is either a front to hate on gay people, or a liberating document that protects kids in faith-based schools who are gay, and won’t allow teachers who come out to be sacked willy-nilly.

The problem is that the bill as it is being proposed, and most likely being begrudgingly accepted by both sides of the House, doesn’t really resolve the practical issues of whether faith based schools will allowed to continue to be alternate ethical communities.

For all the hoo-hah over the work space, the real target constantly seems to be the school space, the place of the formation of the young. Which is not really all that surprising, given how much identity formation is part and parcel of the education space. That’s why so many on the Left down the years – including the more forthright Marxist wing of the Left – have pushed hard for schools to be faith-free zones. After all, how could you inculcate your own faith and doctrine framework into an institution that has a stated, and state-protected, faith and doctrine framework already. That takes a lot of effort.

It’s no surprise on another level. If there were ten or so slightly odd faith-based schools in Australia then there would be no activism against such institutions playing by their own faith-based rules, especially in the sexuality space. Leave the weirdos to their own devices.

But there are more. Way more. In fact almost one third of Australian families – overwhelmingly secular families with perhaps a historical dusting of faith, but not practising themselves – choose to send their children to independent schools, many of which are Christian, and a substantial amount of those being open enrolment, but guarded employment, when it comes to the sexual ethics and practises of staff.

The reason for the deep interest in the school space among our political leaders is clear of course. Sexual ethics is a central plank of all major religions. It’s not just Christians that would like to employ people whose commitment to personal faith leads to a commitment to their religion’s orthodoxy and orthopraxy around sexual matters.

What we are seeing in the secular space however, is a major uncoupling of that reality, and a major commitment to the uncoupling of that reality from our law makers.

At the time of the last federal election orthodox, non-revisionist Christians in faith-based schools believed that they had dodged a bullet, because the Coalition won the election against all odds, and with it, those schools won some time to sort themselves out. The then ALP Opposition had made it clear that should they win the election – and they were very confident of doing so – they would cut all exemptions, including for faith-based schools.

I wrote this article back in June 2019 after that election in which I asked the question “So we’ve dodged a bullet, but what next?”

I remarked back then about the apparent reprieve:

Is there a strategy other than throwing a party, going “Whoopee!”?  There better be, because sitting on our laurels is not going to stave off future attempts to interfere in the religious practices of mediating institutions such as faith-based schools.

But it’s not merely external societal and legal pressures that schools are dealing with, there are internal pressures as well where schools have no clear strategy in terms of navigating an uncertain future. The next three years are a good time for schools to put their houses in order to ensure they can meet whatever future is coming their way.

Well put the bunting away and clear the cupcakes. Here we are three years later and we have not, I fear, figured out a clear strategy for how to deal with this. Many of the recommendations I made in that article seem to be the very things we have forgotten about. And who could blame us? Especially as COVID hit and lockdown and home learning kicked in. It was a busy time for teachers. Who has time to think about the longterm mights and maybes when there are online lessons to prepare.

The irony of the past year or so is that Christian schools have boomed because of the pandemic. Somehow people have signed up their children in record numbers. So that’s fantastic.

But I also made this remark back in 2019:

The culture is turning towards the progressive, regardless of who is in short term political power. So we dodged this bullet, but progressivism is as relentless as a Gatling Gun, so just assume that work will always need to be done to show why alternate ethical communities, and other mediating institutions, are important platforms in a healthy society, and are indeed platforms that can stay the long arm of government overreach.

Nowhere is this progressive bracket creep more obviously true in 2021 than in the so-called conservative parties in power. The push to the Left, and the trend towards a more progressive agenda that views Christian orthodoxy on this matter as incompatible with other human rights issues, is now clearly exhibited with the Coalition.

So, in light of the proposed Bill, we get this report in The Age newspaper this morning, quoting North Sydney MP, the clever, articulate and reasonable Coalition’s Trent Zimmerman:

Mr Zimmerman said religious schools should be able to give preference to people of faith but he expressed concern about how far this might go.

“What I’m concerned to ensure is that in giving preference to staff of the same religion we’re also not opening the door to allowing schools to actually discriminate against someone because of other characteristics like their sexuality,” he told ABC Radio National.

Note the word “other”. The characteristic of our sexuality (and it’s the only other characteristic ever mentioned), is the dividing line here. And it is the card that trumps the rest of the cards. It was ever thus in the Sexular Age. Zimmerman is no true liberal. He may be a true Liberal, in that he is a party loyalist. But a liberal? No amount of inner-city slick will ensure that.

Hence we can have any faith we want. We can believe anything we want, and can promote and tailor our practices and programs towards any central aspect of our ethical framework, except when it comes to sexual identity. That is off-limits. To dare to say that our faith holds to a view of sexuality that secular culture has already decided is fully approved and universally acceptable, means that we will lose. Every time. And that is coming from the so-called conservative side of politics.

What Trent Zimmerman is actually saying is this: “Look, we are very concerned to protect the deep characteristics of your faith, and we reserve your right to determine who your staff are in these areas, but when it comes to how far your faith can go, we refuse to allow it to go as far as sexual practice and identity does.”

So, if schools were counting on the Coalition to keep winning Federal elections, or to keep tinkering at the edges to stave off more aggressive state laws, then they have been counting in vain. The change is coming. And we’re going to have to be far more flexible if we are to dodge that bullet a second time around. Because one thing is for sure, the hard secular, progressive agenda is not running out of ammunition any time soon, and its aim is getting steadier and steadier.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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