Let’s call ‘religious exemptions’ what they really are: extraordinary unjustified privileges.

pic: Australian Human Rights Commission

pic: Australian Human Rights Commission

Call me naive, if you like, but pretty well everyone can agree that the world works best when everyone is working to the same agreed set of rules. That, surely, is what ‘equal before the law’ means, after all. That regardless of how rich, well-connected or well-known you may be, you have to obey the same rules as everyone else.

Some people think the rules shouldn’t apply to them, but the law does sometimes catch up with people eventually: just look at what’s happening in NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption right now.

Sometimes society decides that some people need special privileges exempting them from certain laws, so that they can do their jobs properly.

There are laws which provide legal protection for journalists and other professionals who do not want to reveal details about confidential discussions they have with sources or clients. These mean that in certain strictly limited circumstances, people like me are allowed to do things that would be illegal for the ordinary citizen. We are allowed to withhold important information from the authorities.

[There’s an article on Civil Liberties Australia website which outlines the arguments for and against such special treatments, and outlines why  journalists and others believe we need them, if you’re interested.]

Having immunity from laws that apply to everyone is is a very special privilege and responsibility. It’s only granted in very narrow and specific instances, where any harm that may result from, say,  letting me keep silent, is outweighed by the damage that would be caused if I were forced to speak out. There is no blanket privilege to keep information to myself in all circumstances, just because I’m a journo.

How do the ‘religious exemptions’ to anti-discrimination law stack up against this test? Remember, these grant all religious and religious owned/run organisations and businesses the very great privilege of total exemption from anti-discrimination law. They include:

  • Employment agencies
  • Housing agencies
  • Ages care homes, and in home aged care services
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Adoption agencies
  • Universities, colleges and schools
  • Major food manufacturer, Sanitarium

They can refuse to provide goods, services and employment to anyone who does not meet their own self-imposed moral standards. These may include:

  • People of other faiths (so Christians can refuse to help or employ Muslims, and vice versa)
  • Unmarried cohabiting couples
  • Single mothers
  • Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people

They can do this, even though they are being paid to provide these services by state and federal government: your taxes. Taxes, I might add, from which these organisations are largely exempt.

The question then is this. Is the harm that is done to the people who are refused help, support and employment greater than the harm that would done to the people owning and running these businesses, if they had to work with people they didn’t approve of? The answer, surely, is that the harm done to sick, vulnerable, weak and poor people clearly outweighs any harm to the providers and their staff.

Their special religious privilege, their right to have their prejudices enshrined in law, their right to treat some people as being worth less than others, cannot be justified. Imagine if the same standards were applied to political beliefs: you could have Labor run schools refusing to educate the children of Liberals, or Liberal nursing home owners turning away elderly Greens. It’s incredibly anti-social, divisive, and entrenches prejudice, and makes no sense.

The Gillard government has already dropped plans to overhaul all anti-discrimination law – with one exception. They will amend the Sex Discrimination Act to outlaw discrimination against people because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

Unless you are one of those ‘religious’ organisations and businesses. For you, it’s bigotry as usual.

The Australian Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan is asking the A-G to at least  drop the religious exemptions in respect of aged care. After all, in some areas, ALL the aged-care services are religious run. Susan will be with me on The Rainbow Report tonight.  Please join us.

These special privileges should be withdrawn across the board. The only exemptions should be for the actual practice of the religion, for priests, nuns and their ancillary ritual assistants. No-one else. There’s a petition to the Attorney General at All Out, asking him to remove these religious privileges. Please sign it.

PS The only blanket privilege to keep silent no matter what the consequences is that granted to Catholic priests. They are allowed, in every instance, to withhold information given to them in the confessional. In fact, they are bound by the rules of their own profession never to disclose anything they hear there. You can safely confess multiple murders to a Catholic clergyman: he can’t dob you in, even if to do so would stop you murdering again. 

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)