David Marr’s excellent piece in the Fairfax press yesterday is a reminder of just how conflicted our anti discrimination legislation is, and has been for some time.
Exemption from the law for religious organisations means they are permitted to behave in ways that are unlawful for the rest of us, because of their beliefs. For example, employing someone who does not engage in a heteronormative sexual life, employing a woman who becomes pregnant outside of marriage (the same rule does not apply to the man who impregnates her, by the way) and employing people who live together unmarried (such as Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but her partner Tim Mathieson as well? This is not clear, perhaps it is only women religious institutions demand marry) transgresses some religious beliefs about how human beings ought to conduct themselves in their private lives. No religious institution should be obliged to put itself in a situation where its beliefs are insulted, it is argued, therefore they are all exempt from anti discrimination legislation that applies to everyone else.
I might find it difficult to work alongside someone who holds any or all of the above beliefs because they do not accord with mine and I find them offensive and insulting. However, were I to refuse the believer employment, or to terminate their employment because their beliefs trouble me, I will be committing an offence under the anti discrimination legislation and if they complain, I will be punished.
As I am not a religious institution, I must employ the religious regardless of my beliefs. This irrational imbalance continues, for some inexplicable reason, to be legitimised by the Labor government, itself led by an atheist woman living in a de facto relationship. In other words, as Marr points out, Prime Minister Gillard is legislating against herself.
Perhaps the solution is to declare atheism and agnosticism religions, and apply for exemption from the law. I call this the Wayne LaPierre solution, after the Executive President and CEO of the NRA. LaPierre recently claimed what is needed to stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns. By the same reasoning, we might consider allowing the rest of us the privilege of denying employment to religious people as they may do to us. Then we will have achieved the equal right to deny a livelihood to everyone except ourselves and those who think like us. Which of us is good or bad will remain as subjective as it as ever been, but we’ll all have big guns with which to kill each other’s prospects.
On the other hand, the current consolidation of the anti discrimination laws offers a golden opportunity to effect changes that would revoke privileges extended to religious institutions, and level the playing field. Attorney General Nicola Roxon has introduced additions to the bill that now declare offending or insulting someone to be an unlawful act. Unless of course you are religious institution and then you can offend and insult somebody’s protected attributes (if they do not comply with your belief system) to your heart’s content by refusing to employ them, or by dismissing them on the grounds of that attribute, and you will get clean away with it. If we can accept additions, surely we can effect the subtraction of what is a most discriminating practice that makes a mockery of the entire legislation?
What we need to ask ourselves is: why are we prepared to allow religious institutions to behave in ways that are so unacceptable to the rest of the community that we have declared them unlawful?
The religious are entitled to their beliefs, of course. A secular state is not obliged to adapt its legal system to those beliefs, it is especially not required to do that when the adaptation is to behaviours that for the rest of the population are unlawful because they are deemed extremely harmful to others.
If an act is so undesirable that we have found it necessary to administer punishment to some of those who perform it, how can we say that same act is not undesirable because it is ameliorated by the balm of religious “belief?” And why on earth should we?