religious freedom

5 Reflections on the Failure of Australia’s Religious Discrimination Bill

23 February 2022

3.4 MINS

A review of how the Religious Discrimination Bill came to an ignominious end, with lopsided media coverage and emotive claims.

Last Monday, many well-informed Christians thought Australia might have a Religious Discrimination Bill by the end of the week: a bill that would enshrine common-sense legal protections for people of religious faith.

Alas, by the middle of the week, our hopes were dashed.

The politics around this Bill were so toxic that the Federal government has shelved it. It’s disappointing that our Federal Parliament could not pass a Bill that would have seemed uncontroversial only a few years ago. It’s disappointing that so much media ‘discussion’ surrounding the Bill contained more heat than light.

And so, here are five reflections on the failure of this Bill:

1) How You ‘Frame’ an Issue is (Almost) Everything

We all ‘frame’ pictures we take on our phones by including some things (e.g. the scenic backdrop) but not others (e.g. the tourists standing nearby).

And we do a similar thing with arguments: leaving out certain bits of info while including others.

It’s not all bad — some information isn’t relevant! But there is a downside. Often arguments end up unfairly skewed by the information they include or leave out. And this was the case with the Religious Discrimination Bill. As Sydney Morning Herald journalist Chip Le Grand points out:

‘If you understood this proposed law only from the debate surrounding it rather than what was written in the legislation, you could be forgiven for thinking its main purpose was to allow religious schools to expel students because of their sexuality or gender.’

Framing the Religious Discrimination Bill as a licence to discriminate meant it would never get a fair hearing in our public square, whether in the Media or even Federal Parliament.

2) Public Moral Arguments Are Driven More By Emotion Than Reason

According to Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our modern Western moral debates are primarily driven not by tight moral reasoning but by emotion and aesthetics (or ‘optics’, to use another word). [1]

And we saw this in the arguments against the Religious Discrimination Bill. Nearly all the arguments were driven by emotional appeals against ‘discrimination’ rather than a clear-eyed understanding of the legislation itself. (This is despite the Bill arriving in Parliament with bi-partisan support recommending its adoption into law).

3) In today’s West, ‘Diversity’ Is Only For Some, But Not Others

‘Diversity’ is a buzzword that’s very popular in our secular culture.

Everybody wants to be seen as diverse. Ironically, however, this ‘diversity’ is driven by an intolerant ideology, that restricts true diversity for organisations like Christian schools. Such schools are being pressured to employ non-Christian staff. They’re being told never to enforce their sexual ethic among students. (Never mind that many non-Christian parents choose these schools freely and willingly for their kids). [2]

And all in the name of ‘diversity’: ‘diversity for me but not for thee’.

4) The Public Square is Contested Because of a Clash of Worldviews

It’s tempting to see lack of civility as the reason for our society’s fracturing.

But there’s more to it than that. As Political Science professor David T. Koyzis points out, many of the battles in the political realm are shaped, not simply by the refusal of one side or another to “face facts” or “be reasonable,” as one typically hears, but by differing views of reality rooted in alternative worldviews. [3]

And ground zero for this clash is Religious Freedom.

5) There are Legitimate Reasons Why a Religious School Should Be Allowed To Uphold Its Sexual Ethics Among Students

There are legitimate situations where a religious school should be allowed to uphold its ethos among its students. Even when it comes to students’ sexuality and gender.

Take for example the following situations:

  • A female School Captain (a leader and model to the student body) becomes pregnant while unmarried.

  • A male student identifying as female wants to be enrolled in an all-girls Christian school.

  • A group of LGBTI students want to set up a ‘Pride’ club at their Christian school.

In each of those situations, the Christian school should act lovingly and pastorally, caring for the student(s) in question.

And yet, caring for the students means also caring for the student body. This includes maintaining an environment that furthers the religious ethos of the school among its students (including its sexual and gender ethic). Allowing those situations to continue without any action by the school would compromise that ethos.

In our pluralistic and diverse society, surely we can make room for true diversity: a diversity for religious communities to operate schools according to their ethos, even when that ethos includes a sexual and gender ethic that’s different to the mainstream?

After all, so often it’s the religious ethos (and the environment it fosters) that leads parents (Christian and non-Christian) to willingly send their kids to such schools. [4]


[1] Taken from Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self — Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020), p. 85.

[2] I’m indebted to Christian philosopher Chris Watkin for this insight.

[3] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions And Illusions — A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), p. 8.

[4] Associate Professor Neil Foster discusses this further on his blog.


Originally published at Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels.

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