Religious freedom, or workplace discrimination?

JESSE J. FLEAY is an Edith Cowan University researcher who finds ways of promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in the classroom. Fleay says while Catholic schools are currently leading the way in this field, comments from the church higher-ups on the weekend that employees who married same-sex partners could be sacked, prompted him to pen this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER. 

THE Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe is unpatriotic and un-Australian for his opposition to marriage equality. It is unpatriotic to be indifferent to the inequality of a fellow man or woman, but it is un-Australian to actively campaign for that inequality.

Australia is a secular nation. Governments should not interfere in the rights of individuals to practice religion, and should not interfere with the rights of individuals to live without religion. This is not simply a nice idea, it is Australian Constitutional law.

Yet, Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, has warned the Catholic Church’s 180,000 employees that they must uphold the teachings interpreted by the Archdiocese “totally” and that any defiance of these teachings would be reprimanded “very seriously.”

Since then, the Catholic Church has gone into damage control. Perth’s Archbishop Costelloe released a statement in his capacity as Chair of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education.

“The statement does not, either explicitly or implicitly, propose or suggest that…someone who enters into a same-sex marriage will be married Sunday, fired Monday”, said Archbishop Costelloe.

Whilst Archbishop Costelloe may be sincere, his claims do not seem to line up with Archbishop Hart’s comments in the literal sense.

“Our teachers, our parish employees are expected totally to uphold the Catholic faith and what we believe about marriage. People have to see in words and in example that our teaching of marriage is underlined,” said Archbishop Hart.

Catholic organisations employ a diversity of Australians, in a multitude of services: education, hospitals and palliative care, and programs for youth.

Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission notes that “direct discrimination takes place when a person is treated less favourably than another person, in the same or similar circumstances, on one or more of the grounds and in one of the areas of public life covered by the Equal Opportunity Act 1984.”

The Act includes the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, gender history, family responsibility or family status, marital status, as well as race, age, impairment, pregnancy, and religious, and political convictions.

Firing someone based on their same sex marriage status would be an infringement of the Act in Western Australia: that kind of discrimination could quite easily touch on the first six grounds listed above.

I am willing to accept Archbishop Costelloe’s claim  that Archbishop Hart has been misrepresented in the media at face value. I completely accept that there will, indeed, not be any cases where an employee of a Catholic organisation loses their job on unfair grounds. Indeed, it had best be the case. Otherwise, the Catholic church in Australia would be stepping out of the shallows of religious freedom and plunging into the depths of workplace discrimination.

Workplace discrimination is against the law, in every State and Territory of Australia. These facts are not informed by religious thought, but by secular legal principles.

Fortunately, every Catholic I know is voting yes in the plebiscite. Their thoughts will not be policed by archbishops, and they will not be intimidated.

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