Folau, Morrison and the Christian Right to Discriminate

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The PM’s pet campaign to protect religious freedoms has recently converged with the media focus around Israel Folau’s sacking over his vilification of LGBTIQ people, which has brought the national debate to a head over whether Christians have the right to discriminate based on sexuality.

That’s indeed what the religious right’s push for greater religious freedoms/exemptions/protections is all about: the Christian right to discriminate. The only time other religions – say Islam – are brought into the debate is when those instigating it want to hide its true colours.

As it is, under section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), religious educational institutions already have the right to discriminate against those they employ and educate based on their “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy”.

And with a newly emboldened Liberal Nationals government returning to parliament next week fresh from conducting press raids, it’s anyone’s guess what kind of further religious exemptions or protections it will be spruiking in its soon to be introduced Religious Discrimination Act.

But, one certainty that’s come out of the recent furore is the group of unidentified citizens known as the “quiet Australians” that Morrison claims are behind his “miracle” election win, are the very same group supporting Folau.

Repent ye sinners

Former Wallaby star Israel Folau has stressed that his homophobic social media rant condemning homosexuals to eternal damnation – which led Rugby Australia to sack him for breach of contract – was a “message of love”.

And it can be surmised that the sermon he gave at a church a fortnight ago was also coming from this “place of love”, when Folau told the congregation that homosexuality is a plot by the devil to take over the world and acknowledging the gender of trans children is somehow proof of this.

On Monday, GoFundMe took down Folau’s crowdfunding page, which was set up to cover his legal challenge against Rugby Australia’s cancellation of his $4 million contract. The company cited its terms of service that prohibit campaigns for the defence of alleged crimes relating to discrimination.

That’s when the Australian Christian Lobby stepped into the picture. The registered charity/lobby group on Tuesday began its own fundraising campaign for the multi-millionaire, which was paused two days later once it had raised over $2 million.

“For now, we are thrilled that Izzy is not only supported, but a great movement of quiet Australians have found their voice,” the ACL said on its website. “This cannot be ignored.” And it certainly can’t, as it’s revealed there’s a lot of Christians just stinging to see their right to discriminate protected.

A medieval crusade

Scott Morrison told SMH in December 2017 that he’d be making the enactment of further religious protections a priority of his in 2018. And soon after he took the helm last August, he reaffirmed this commitment, emphasising that Christian schoolkids shouldn’t face curbs on their tradition.

Following public outcry last October over Australian laws that allow school teachers to be sacked and students to be expelled based on their sexuality, the Pentecostal PM found it hard to hold back a smile, as he justified these provisions to reporters merely by stating they’re “existing law”.

Morrison eventually conceded that students shouldn’t be “expelled on the basis of their sexuality” and he vowed to change the laws. But, these reforms never came to pass and in December, he announced his government would be prioritising the enactment of a Religious Discrimination Act.

The promised legislation wasn’t introduced prior to the April dissolution of federal parliament. And on 18 May, Morrison was elected back to office, which was an occurrence that he put down to an act of God, as well as the votes of those “quiet Australians”.

And despite denying it, Morrison has consistently worn his religion on his sleeve since he’s entered parliament. In his 2008 maiden speech, the now reigning PM cited examples of other politicians who’d followed “the convictions of their faith” to reinforce the principles of liberal democracy.

Backlash over equal rights

The debate over religious freedoms came to the fore as the passing of marriage equality legislation grew nearer. And once the law was enacted, then PM Malcolm Turnbull established an inquiry into religious freedoms to appease the conservative elements of his party, who’d been ruffled.

To head up the inquiry, Turnbull appointed former attorney general Philip Ruddock: the man behind the 2004 amendments to the Marriage Act, which ensured that same-sex partners were prevented from getting married. But, this review was no lone wolf.

On the month prior to same-sex marriage passing, a parliamentary committee tabled  its interim report on religious freedoms, which found the main threat was state anti-discrimination laws, which “do not allow for lawful differentiation of treatment by religious individuals and organisations”.

The Ruddock review recommendations were revealed last October. They included the establishment of a Religious Discrimination Act, as well as a requirement that religious schools provide a publicly available policy outlining their position on discriminating in relation to employees and students.

The conservative endpoint of this discourse can be seen in the further advanced religious freedoms debate in the United States with the religious right pushing for multiple provisions allowing for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Trump administration wants to ban transgender people from homeless shelters and prisons designed for the gender they identify as, allow shopkeepers to refuse service to same-sex couples, as well as provisions for healthcare providers to refuse certain procedures to transgender patients.

Those quiet Australians

Shadow assistant treasurer Stephen Jones told the ABC on Tuesday the Folau debate is about multiculturalism. “This is what multiculturalism looks like,” he said. “It looks like people of different cultures, different faiths, different backgrounds coming to our country expressing different views.”

But, this is furthest from the truth. This debate has nothing to do with the fact that Folau – who was born in suburban Sydney – is of Tongan descent. And if that’s not clear, it certainly is once you factor in the support of the Australian Christian Lobby and the link to Morrison’s long-term crusade.

This debate is about the majority religion – followed by those “quiet” predominantly Anglo Australians – being concerned that its position of privilege is under threat, as well as its bizarre assertion that it needs to denigrate parts of the population in order to express its love of humanity.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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