Employment Services Minister Tony Abbott must feel like a World War I Digger who has gone over the top from the trenches in the face of enemy fire only to look behind and find no one there to support him.
The Minister has found himself doing battle against the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) over its draft guidelines on discrimination of religious organisations in employment.
The Commission wants to stop religious organisations discriminating in favor of their own kind in job applications. Hence a Christian employment agency will no longer be able to seek a “Christian” for a job, references from priests or ministers cannot be a requirement.
Furthermore, the refusal of employment of someone who would otherwise be a source of potential scandal to a church organisation, say a serial public adulterer or an activist homosexual, will be grounds for discrimination.
Division of church and state has been a vexed and complex area going back at least to the time of Caesar and Christ. Even after victory in the decades-long fight for state aid to Catholic and private schools in Australia, there was always the nagging fear in the back of the minds of many that one day a price would have to be paid for accepting the largesse of the state in the form of an assault on their independence.
The introduction of quasi-laws on things like discrimination, of compulsory sex education and other aspects of school curricula are making those fears a reality.
In the mid-1980s the St Vincent de Paul Society agonised over whether to accept millions of dollars of Federal Government funding for emergency relief. In exchange for the cash the Social Security Department wanted the names, addresses and other personal information about those people the society was helping.
After much soul searching St Vincent De Paul declined, knowing that it risked hurting the most needy people in the community. It did so because it felt that providing this information would not only harm the dignity of the poor, but because ultimately the St Vincent de Paul Society was a religious organisation.
It was not a commercial operation or an arm of government trying to eliminate poverty from society.
Several years later the bureaucrats, knowing how close the society was to the most desperate cases in the community, sought a compromise. St Vincent de Paul now provides minimal information including the postcodes and categories of the people it is helping – e.g. single mothers – in exchange for emergency funding.
The point is that all religious organisations can be tainted to some degree once government funding is accepted.
The Christian-run employment agencies have been a success for the Howard Government for the same reason as St Vincent de Paul is so successful at reaching the poor – they are motivated by objectives which a public servant, no matter how well meaning, can never hope to achieve.
Mr Abbott argues that placing restrictions on the freedom of religious organisations to manage themselves is contrary to long-established practice in Australia, and could jeopardise the ability of these organisations to deliver services.
He also says the restrictions look like upholding freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion undermining the ethos of religious employment agencies.
Not surprisingly the “besieged” Commission has found strong support in the Fairfax press with the exception of Adelaide-based commentator, Christopher Pearson, who pulled no punches describing the guidelines as “yet another of its Orwellian documents”.
“The new norms are a vexatious reversal of the broad exemptions within anti-discrimination codes which the various faiths have previously guaranteed,” Mr Pearson wrote recently in the Financial Review. “If HREOC were unchallenged, those norms would set case law precedents which will eventually extend to hospitals, nursing homes and schools run by religious bodies.”
Mr Pearson’s comments go to the heart of the problem. The history of these issues is that once it has gained a foothold in religious-run employment agencies, the Commission will seek to undermine all aspects of religious activities.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission needs constantly to extend its powers in order to survive and find new areas of discrimination to justify its existence. If there is no evil discrimination out there, the Commission can be safely shut down, saving millions of taxpayers’ money.
The scenario is quite familiar.
After a couple of years of successful application of the guidelines, a few test cases, and pleas from persecuted atheist teachers in Christian schools for the guidelines to be extended, the commission will have “no choice” but to seek to extend its tentacles once more.
What of a Catholic hospital which refuses to employ an eminent physician who is a strong public advocate of abortion, or of a Catholic nursing home which turns down the job application of a proponent of euthanasia.
Will it not be discrimination against their religious freedom to refuse their employment? Commission president Professor Alice Tay has rejected Abbott’s claims, describing the public debate he instigated as the arrival of a “particularly intolerant mood”.
While the guidelines were issued in draft and for public comment, Professor Tay complained that much of the discussion had been “unhelpful and misleading”.
“We are not winding back the rights of religious organisations,” she declared as if her word was all that should be needed on the subject. But to support her argument she cited the response to the guidelines from non-denominational Christian Job Network provider Mission Australia, which said it had no quibbles at all with the guidelines, and in fact “strongly supported” them.
Mission Australia has several fellow travellers among the major church employment agencies, including the Uniting Church and Salvation Army.
But regrettably some Christian churches in Australia have shed any pretext of a supernatural aspect to their charitable works. For them religion is simply a sociological phenomena and, like the producers of the ABC program Compass, they see no intrinsic difference between, say, tarot card reading and Judaism.
Truth becomes something totally subjective, although the dogma of religious tolerance extends to accepting everyone’s views, philosophies and lifestyles as equal to the point where their own identity as a religion becomes meaningless.
Where the proposed guidelines go to from here is hard to say, but it is difficult to be optimistic when some of the churches are on the side of the commission.
How extraordinary to find a politician putting his head on the line for the sake of religious freedom in Australia, only to find some of the churches have already raised the white flag?