In the name of God: The shadow of the Religious Discrimination Bill

Unpacking the profound implications of the religious discrimination debate.

The Religious Discrimination Bill was a key promise of the Morrison Government in the last election. It sought to protect freedom of religion and clarify exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act (1984) enjoyed by religious education providers, which allow them to discriminate against staff on the basis of sexuality, pregnancy, and marital status.

On 9 February this year, the government withdrew this signature bill after five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to support amendments protecting transgender students in religious schools – the most to do so in forty years. However, a Religious Discrimination Bill likely to still become law, as both major parties have committed to passing some iteration of it should they be elected. 

In October 2020, Steph Lentz, an English Teacher who worked at a Christian high school in the Northern Beaches, was fired after informing them of her coming out. It was legal then and still legal now.

“I knew that given the type of school it was… it mightn’t end well for me,” she says, “but authenticity is very important to me.”

“For the sake of being honest I approached them to engage in a productive way and have a dialogue on how I was trying to reconcile my faith with my sexuality.” 

As a Christian, the opportunity to work at a religious school was important to her, as she was able to embed enduring understandings of her faith into her lessons – something not possible in a state school. 

Australia heavily relies on faith-based organisations to run many of its hospitals, schools and aged care homes, particularly in rural areas. Our government has long acknowledged the crucial role they play, entrusting them with vast swathes of taxpayer money to do so. As such, now over fifty per cent of public services are provided by faith-based organisations on government contracts.

Much of the focus in the recent debate has been on students receiving their education from these institutions yet little attention has been given toward the people providing it — namely, educators. 

Raised Christian, Lentz highlights that queer teachers in faith-based schools are both important role models for LGBTQIA+ students, and key to reconciling the apparent conflicts of religious and queer identities. 

“Since [my] coming out, its become clear that a lot of students were queer themselves…  There was some sort of affinity there between the way that I experienced the world and the way that they did, which made them feel safe and seen” she says. 

As such, “a significant proportion of students who identify as LGBTQIA+ have people that they can identify with in that way, to look up to, and with whom to have conversations about these things, knowing that they will be treated with respect and compassion.”   

Lentz notes that most students do not make the choice to attend religious schools themselves, but are raised in religious families like herself. 

“It’s something that you’re born into… and you sort of adopted the assumptions and the principles that come with that because of the parents or the communities that have raised them.” 

Lentz says she enjoyed sharing common, faith-based experiences with colleagues – which ceased when she was fired. These experiences comprise an indivisible part of her identity rather than a dispensable memory.

“I really relished being able to have those conversations,” she says. “There was a lot in common between me and my colleagues, and that made for some really powerful and supportive friendships.” 

For many Christians, it is not uncommon for their faith to be an inextricable feature of their lives, influencing where they volunteer, go to school and where they go to when they fall sick. Being on any side of these exchanges helps weave a sense of belonging as a meaningful contributor to this wider social fabric. These experiences form an understanding that Christianity and duties to their communities go hand in hand. To deny someone the right to ‘give back’ and serve, be it in the military, as a doctor, or as a teacher, frustrates that idea of community. There is a view that gay people are not discriminated against in the church as they are welcome to attend, just not volunteer or be in the band or go to bible college. However, if you are allowed to sit in on a service but not able to meaningfully participate in it, you are a spectator to a community not a member of it. In many ways, to be openly queer, to reveal oneself, is to also lose one’s community.

Queer people are no strangers to their private lives becoming weapons against them, capable of threatening their sense of safety, our status of employment, or their standing in the communities they consider home. Not so long ago their perceived degeneracy was likened to paedophiles and their removal from schools was demanded for fear of student safety. The wounds from these episodes, even to those who didn’t lose their jobs, were indelible. 

Women, too, once felt categorically barred from fields of service such as nursing, teaching and politics as punishment for their choices to realise womanhood in then-disagreeable ways, such as living out of home or having a family before marriage. 

In fact, many other people of faith still feel a need to trade openness with security, afraid to speak to their religious associations or wear identifying garments and jewellery in public spaces or at work. 

This culture needlessly and harmfully spreads the belief that the happiest and most intimate parts of our lives should also be our most private and shameful. Only by granting others the permission to authentically be themselves can they then fully realise themselves, and meaningfully contribute to our communities. Many people – even in Australia – live their lives still waiting for that permission.

Limited opportunities exist for educational staff.  Many seek employment at religious schools due to limited choice, geography, or even a genuine desire to give back to the communities they’re a part of. Nothing should disqualify those who are fit from the opportunity to serve their communities. Individuals who are willing should not be made to look elsewhere for that chance. Yet they often are made to do so, precluded often for ‘being against the values of an organisation’.

The ostensibly universal “ethos” of religious organisations are rarely uniformly applied in practice. Often assessments of employees goes beyond their performance and into their private lives, becoming an exercise in surveillance aimed at regulating their relationships with God and leading to a situation where one can post their wedding photos on a Sunday and be fired on the Monday.

Feeling a sense of hostility when providing and receiving public services facilitated by faith-based organisations is understandable, particularly for the most vulnerable who have little choice but to rely on their assistance. 

It should be noted that publicly funded faith-run schools, hospitals, aged care homes and disability services rarely hire exclusively within their faith, filling positions every year with qualified candidates perfectly content with promoting a doctrine to which they do not subscribe, common for those of minority faiths.  

Any notion of your taxes going to an institution that either refuses to serve or hire you similar to other citizens frustrates shared conceptions of fairness and equal opportunity.

There is no single piece of legislation that currently exists at the Federal level that affords protection to people of faith. This differs from other protected attributes such as race, sex and disability. Thus it is likely, and right, that the next government seek to do so. However, the original bill went beyond protecting expressions of belief in an individual capacity, to protecting professional and institutional exercises of religion. It was never ‘an ordinary piece of anti-discimination legislation that prevented discrimination’ according to USyd Law Professor Simon Rice, ‘but also encouraged it’. 

”It says you can discriminate against others on the basis of your religion, by keeping exemptions and adding on freedom provisions,” he says.

However, even if an eventual Bill without these provisions contained the amendments proposed, it would still override stronger protections that exist at the state and territory level, Victoria for instance prohibits discrimination except in faith based roles such as pastors and religion teachers. The bill was not designed to operate concurrently with these laws, breaking with history of Australian anti-discrimination legislation and having practical implications of removing the relative cost and ease of bringing complaints before state tribunals and agencies, who are constitutionally prohibited from hearing Commonwealth defences. 

Still, it seems, despite removing an exemption for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, other avenues exist for schools to discriminate in similar ways – not on the basis of sexual orientation but belief, as long as those beliefs are written policy made public. 

The religious freedom afforded to students is limited, hindering their ability to question, explore and develop their own faith without the fear of punishment from their school for doing so. Substantial protection would require limiting discrimination on religious belief to enrolment only, an approach already adopted in many states.

While the public often understands queer community and communities of faith to be ‘pitted’ against one another, freedom of expression lies at the heart of both. 

“I don’t think there is an irreconcilable incompatibility between an affirming stance on LGBTQIA+ people and relationships, and a Christian commitment,” says Lentz. 

“The two things that come back to me again and again are the harm caused on people’s senses of self and people’s mental health when two very core and important aspects of a person, being their spiritual affinity and their sexuality or gender, are pitted against one another.”  

Lentz believes the discussion of these impacts is currently absent from the debate surrounding a Religious Discrimination Bill, “this perception of enmity and exclusion between the two is really damaging and dangerous.”

“I’ve got friends and I know people who’ve ended their lives because of this no win situation, they can’t be Christian, they can’t be gay, they cant be both at the same time, they never fully belong in either group,” she says.

“I think we need to look at the way this rhetoric affects especially young people who are both queer and in communities of faith.” 

To not guarantee the protection of teachers is to not recognise the vital role they play in the lives of queer kids. And while the gap in which so many of them sit may feel so unbridgeable at times, the courage of those in our classroom and in our government are a reminder that it is ultimately people, not policy, who determine our belonging in the communities we call home.