Restore Tolerance of Religion to Football and Democracy

25 October 2022


Pushing Andrew Thorburn out of his job as chief executive of Essendon Football Club ignored/violated the AFL’s own code of conduct, and probably Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act, sparking a nation-wide debate on religious freedom.

Andrew Thorburn was recruited for his top managerial experience in the banking sector, and being a long-time Essendon fan. He is also a member of the “City on a Hill” church, which is linked with the Anglican Church.

The story repeated by the media was that the church “equated abortion with concentration camps” and claims “practising homosexuality is a sin”.

Yet, to its credit, The Guardian newspaper reported:

“A City on a Hill article from 2013, titled ‘Surviving Same-Sex Attraction as a Christian’, advises those who ‘struggle with same-sex attraction’ to ‘speak to a mature Christian whom you trust, so you can receive the support and accountability you will need in the long term to survive these temptations’.

“Those views were reiterated in a 2016 sermon stating ‘practising homosexuality is a sin, but same-sex attraction is not a sin’…

“Another sermon, published in 2013 and titled, ‘What Should Christians Think About Abortion’, said: ‘Whereas today we look back at sadness and disgust over concentration camps, future generations will look back with sadness at the legal murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings every day through medicine and in the name of freedom’,” The Guardian said.

Despite these moral beliefs being held by many religions, Essendon Club president David Barham said:

“We acted immediately to clarify the publicly espoused views on the organisation’s official website, which are in direct contradiction to our values as a club.

“The board made clear that, despite these not being views that Andrew Thorburn has expressed personally and that were also made prior to him taking up his role as chairman [of his church’s board], he couldn’t continue to serve in his dual roles at the Essendon Football Club and as chairman of City on the Hill.”

Hence, Andrew Thorburn’s sin was not any statements he had made, but “guilt by association” with a minister of his church.

Mr Thorburn later said: “it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many. I was being required to compromise beyond a level that my conscience allowed.”

Thorburn resigned the day after his Essendon Club appointment.

Daniel Andrews’ Intemperate Comments

Condemnation of his alleged beliefs were amplified by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who pummelled Thorburn, saying the views of his church were “absolutely appalling”, promoting “hatred [and] bigotry”. Thorburn resigned just 30 hours after his appointment.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights commissioner, Ro Allen, sided with Essendon’s religious persecution of Thorburn, applauding the club for “standing to their values”.

Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and Essendon supporter Peter Comensoli pointed out that it was the Premier’s comments that were “harmful”, saying:

“The Premier’s own words about his beliefs and how they play out for the sake of others, have tended toward the harmful, because they have sought to uphold the good of one by undermining the good of another.”

The affair drew an angry response from Allan Hird. He played several games for Essendon, while his father and his son James are both Essendon Club legends.

Reflecting an old saying, I have my football faith on Saturday and my church faith on Sunday, Allan Hird said he was raised a Catholic by his mother and given his love of the Essendon Club by his father. However, in the wake of the Thorburn affair, he asked in a letter to Essendon president David Barham: “Am I not welcome at Essendon anymore?”

By implication, how many others of the AFL’s 700 employees, 1,000 plus elite athletes and 1.4 million participants are left asking the question:

“Am I no longer welcome in the AFL because of my religious beliefs?”

Conflicted Rights, and No Toleration

Like Essendon’s David Barham, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan made it appear that Thorburn’s resignation as Essendon CEO was the result of a conflict between “religious beliefs” and the “values and culture” of the Essendon Club. McLachlan said a decision had to be made.

But why was a choice necessary?

First, Essendon is a football club. Its business is to win grand finals and bring excitement and joy of the sport to players and fans, not to be a moral judge between religious beliefs and differing cultural values.

Second, the AFL Vilification Framework says that Player Rule 35 applies to “all people involved” in the sport.

In particular, its Prohibited Conduct Rule 35.1 states:

“No person… shall act towards or speak to any other person in a manner, or engage in any other conduct which threatens, disparages, vilifies or insults another person (the person vilified) on any basis, including but not limited to a person’s race, religion, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, special ability/disability or sexual orientation, preference or identity.”

Clause 4.1 of the Vilification & Discrimination Section of the Member Protection Policy has almost the same wording.

Given that “religion”, “sex” and “sexual orientation” are all protected against vilification by these rules, clearly the Essendon Club leaders demonstrated that sex and sexual-orientation rights take priority over religious rights. Indeed, McLachlan said he supported Mr Thorburn, a personal friend, but backed Essendon’s position.

Also drawn into the debate was the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who said:

“We have not found a way of disagreeing without exclusion, without cancelling people … We invariably end up setting one group’s rights against another group’s rights.”

To the contrary, Australia and Western-style democracies once did have a way of not pitting “one person’s rights against another group’s rights”. We did have a tried and true means of respecting all views “without cancelling people”.

It was called “tolerance”.

Tolerant Democracies Versus Intolerant States

Of all the forms of government, tolerant democracies deliver the highest degree of personal freedom and respect for human rights. But they didn’t just happen. They were forged from centuries of conflict and bloodshed.

The 16th and 17th-century Wars of Religion, or the wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, cost millions of lives in Europe and Britain. The combatants were influenced by rival religious beliefs, although religion was only one of several contributors to the conflict, in most cases.

These wars ended with a series of treaties that effectively declared that people would tolerate each other’s beliefs and live alongside each other peacefully. Even where a state religion remained, other religions would be tolerated and no longer persecuted.

It was a case of either tolerant peace or endless wars.

After the bloody horrors of World War II (1939–45), further bulwarks for free, tolerant democratic societies were established via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

As the late British Jewish theologian and philosopher, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, has explained, a tolerant state “aims not so much at truth but at peace. It is a political necessity, not a religious imperative, and it arises when people have lived through the alternative: the war of all against all.”

Tolerance” means to “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference”. It derives from the Latin, tolerantia, meaning to “bear with”, or “endure with”. Tolerance is how we respect differences with others.

The famous French Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, demonstrated the meaning of tolerance. When strongly disagreeing with a book written by philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Voltaire’s disposition to Helvétius was described by Evelyn Beatrice Hall as:

“I wholly disapprove of what you say — but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

A tolerant democracy allows for a “pluralist” society that recognises “autonomy for individual bodies in preference to monolithic state control” where “members of minority groups maintain their independent cultural traditions”. This is the essence of diversity.

In priority order, first tolerance, then pluralism and diversity, are required by institutions like football clubs and corporations, as much as by the democratic political system, to create a truly free and just society.

In a striking parallel to the religious conflicts two hundred years ago, today’s anti-discrimination laws and codes of conduct unnecessarily pit one group’s LGBT sexual ethics against the religious and cultural heritage of other groups. Two hundred years ago it was the brutal military war of all against all. Today we risk the legal war of all against all, if cultural uniformity is imposed at the expense of tolerance, cultural diversity and pluralism.

Anti-discrimination laws and corporate codes of conduct are gene­rating unnecessary conflicts bet­ween contending “rights” without any recognition of the “tolerance” neces­sary for conflicted beliefs to co-exist, and for polite yet passionate disagreement.

Incredibly, the AFL’s Vilification Framework nowhere speaks of “tolerance”. It should. It needs a clause for tolerance between different ethical and moral beliefs, so long as a belief does not cause incitement to hatred that might lead to violence or breach of the peace.

This is needed if we are not to witness more people being persecuted and sacked from the AFL because they hold religious beliefs, or are deemed to be guilty of associating with others expressing their moral convictions.

Once tolerance is restored, we can all get on with enjoying our preferred religion(s).


Originally published at News Weekly.

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