The Sunday Age: "Balancing Religion and Rights"?

The Sunday Age continues its fight against the “injustice” of “last week’s decision by Attorney-General Rob Hulls to grant religious organisations the right to continue to reject employees on the grounds of sex, sexuality, marital and parental status and gender identity” by carrying two pieces related to the topic today.

1) The Teacher

The first is an article about a teacher, Rebecca Ireland. Today she is a married mother-of-three. But there is a dark history:

Back in 2004, the 31-year-old was an outsider. Before Rebecca and Peter married, she fell pregnant. It was unplanned, but welcomed. The problem was that Mrs Ireland taught at a Catholic primary school that disapproved of unmarried and single mothers.

The school indicated to Mrs Ireland, then known as Miss Harman to her students, that her contract would not be renewed. Facing the loss of maternity leave rights, Mrs Ireland took the case to the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. In mediation, the school backed down after the teacher signed an agreement not to promote her ”chosen lifestyle” to the students.

Can we take a moment to point something out? First, Catholics, in my experience, do not “disapprove of unmarried and single mothers”. The Catholic Church teaches that sex (and hence parenthood) is reserved for marriage, and that sex outside of marriage is a sin. So, it is true to say that Catholics “disapprove of sex outside marriage”. On the other hand, Catholics are generally wild about babies no matter what the marital status of their parents may be and (in this day and age where the alternative to keeping a baby is usually abortion) seeks to be supportive of those who experience unplanned (and sometimes unwanted) pregnancies.

Catholic primary schools however might not be so keen when one of their staff members, who had agreed to be supportive of the “Catholic ethos” at the time they were employed, turns out to be publically living a lifestyle that is not supportive of the “Catholic ethos”.

I have a little experience of this. When I was a Lutheran pastor, one of my parishioners lost her teaching job at an independent “Christian school” under just these circumstances. I was certainly sympathetic. The way in which she was summarily dismissed did seem a bit harsh – especially given that soon after the birth of the baby she married her partner. I thought at the time that I could understand the school’s point, but surely a solution could have been found? Eg. Leave of absence until after the child was born or after the marriage?

In Rebecca Ireland’s case, it appears that a solution was found – and in fact a fairly lenient one for her. Sometimes these things just need a willingness to negotiate on the part of all concerned. (The recent case of Fr Bob Maguire shows that.)

2) The Archbishop and the Law Professor

On the opinion pages, the story is revisited in the standard respected form of “pro” and “con” pieces by representative voices. In the blue (green?) corner is the Archbishop of the Glorious See of Melbourne, His Grace, the Most Reverend Denis Hart DD, arguing “The Case for Discrimination”. In the red (yes, definitely red) corner is Professor Margaret Thornton BA(Hons) Syd, LLB (UNSW), LLM (Yale), FASSA, FAAL, Barrister of the Supreme Court of NSW & the High Court of Australia arguing “The Case against Discrimination.”

Let’s just look at the way the Archbishop was put on the defensive right from the very beginning by the editor of the Opinion Pages. Why was he asked to defend the case “FOR discrimination”? Why was he not asked to defend the case “FOR religious freedom”? Because that is what these two pieces are really about. This really isn’t a dispute about discrimination. As I have written before, everyone discriminates when employing people. Generally the Catholic Church agrees with the rest of society about what is “unjust discrimination”: it is unjust to discriminate on the basis of “race, disability, political belief, age, physical features or breastfeeding”, as Professor Thornton points out. As Archbishop Hart points out,

While we hold many values in common with the community, there are certain values that are not held in common but are central to our understanding of the meaning of life. These same values are not exclusively Catholic or religious. They are also held by people of other faiths and often by people of no faith at all.

Margaret Thornton shows her ignorance of Catholic moral theology when she asserts that “it is unlikely that there is a rational theological basis for the discrimination” – as His Grace points out, our moral theology is a direct, rational and logical outcome of “our understanding of the meaning of life.”

So lets get back to the real disagreement here, which is not about discrimination (which everyone does) but about religious freedom (about which there is far from unanimous agreement in our society).

Professor Thornton asserts that:

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities specifies a right to freedom of religion, which is conceptualised in individualistic terms. This means that everyone is free to believe whatever they wish, however bizarre, and they can also engage in the religious practices of their choice.

The problem with the exception is that it extends the protection of personal belief to organisations such as schools run by religious bodies.

It doesn’t take much to see what is at issue here. Professor Thornton admirably demonstrates the time honoured Enlightenment view of religion: it is a private, personal matter, not to be allowed to transgress into the public square. “The problem”, as she calls it, is when personal religion overflows into communal associations.

I don’t know if the good Professor has studied religion very much, but contrary to the good old-fashioned Enlightenment dogma, religion in human society is generally a communal rather than a purely private or individualistic affair. This is certainly the case for Christianity, and especially the case for Catholicism. The sort of religion that Denis Hart represents, then, is emphatically NOT “private religion”, but public. One cannot be a Catholic without being a member of the Catholic community.

Now note well that the kind of “religious freedom” Margaret Thornton supports is exactly the sort of “religious freedom” that the Saudi Arabian government allows its citizens and foreign residents: freedom to believe whatever you like personally and privately, but not freedom to act upon it in public or communal ways. In other words, be very, very careful of anyone who tells you that they support “freedom of religion”, but only for individuals in their private life. As Douglas Adams might have written, that is a new meaning of the term “freedom of religion” that I wasn’t previously aware of.

3) The Letters

And finally, of course, there are the letters. Let us just say that The Age continues to display its own “right to discriminate”. The number of letters against the Hull’s decision is three times higher than the number of letters in favour. “Read The Age” and “Maintain the Rage”?

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7 Responses to The Sunday Age: "Balancing Religion and Rights"?

  1. Tom says:

    First, I like that you’re chasing this. It is an issue that will have spill-over, and I imagine we’ll see something like this in NSW at some point.

    Now to the meat: the secular counter-argument.

    I’ve just written and re-written (my typical) unending posts. The longer I’ve delved into this subject, the more I realised that it covers a seething mass of traditions and idea’s. This is more than I can write about. So, having cut virtually everything out, I would say just this. First, that the concept of Freedom of Religion that Margaret Thornton understands is something like an idea that I am ‘free to think’. Well of course i’m free to think, that’s what thinking is, and thinking is what I do. It is a meaningless right, because it is not something that can be taken away. In this sense, I would level it exactly as I would level the ‘freedom of choice’ that pro-abortionists claim. In so far as you can choose you are free to choose. Sometimes, you choose things that land you in gaol. A murderer chose as well; we don’t defend this choice.

    The point of rights is that, as moral obligations, they make some choices unacceptable.

    The problem of rights is that people have the capacity to act against those rights. If the media argues for a right to think, you better hope that someone has a mind-control device, cause if not, it’s bound to be some fancy legal trick into making you do something wicked. No-one can force my thinking, any more than they can force my believing. Sorry, a right to think/believe just makes no sense; these are NOT rights that can actually be violated. Therefore, not really rights.

    Thus, if Freedom of Religion is not to be meaningless, it must mean something much deeper than a freedom to believe on an individual level. It has to mean something like a Freedom to act without violating my conscience as a religious believer. Fortunately for Christianity, Australia is a Western Christian Nation, and thus most of what the Church calls people to do is not morally objectionable. I doubt there are many people who can seriously raise a banner against the priesthood itself (maybe against particular priests), or can raise a serious banner against charity, or health-care, or education themselves. For these are all Christian concepts.

    However, Christianity, while it does not proscribe actions that most people would find objectionable, it does prescribe certain actions that people find acceptable. Things such as Abortion, unmarried couples cohabiting etc. etc.

    If Freedom of Religion is going to truly exist, then it has to take account of what Christianity both proscribes and prescribes. That means not forcing a Catholic institution to encourage something that it considers to be evil. It just so happens, that having an openly homosexual teacher at a school does, directly or indirectly, support homosexuality.

    Third: ‘we shouldn’t fund religious institutions if they wont conform to public morality’.

    If the government wants to abandon funding any and all schools that aren’t public, then the world will finally know just exactly how much cheaper Catholic schools are to run than Public Schools. The Goulburn School Strike anyone? It’s like saying that no taxes from Catholics should be used to fund Public education because they send their children to Catholic schools. What crap.

    It’s late, i’m tired. Good night.

  2. Schütz says:

    But well argued for so late at night, Tom. Except I think you meant:

    “However, Christianity, while it does not prEscribe actions that most people would find objectionable, it does prOscribe certain actions that people find acceptable. Things such as Abortion, unmarried couples cohabiting etc. etc”

    Sometimes we really shouldn’t try to debate issues late at night. Or after too much port.

    • Tom says:

      Quite possibly: I wanted to say that Christianity promotes actions most people would not object to and prohibits actions that some people think should be considered acceptable.

      It’s true David, that perhaps I shouldn’t debate late at night, or after too much port. The problem I have is that I just can’t help myself. I always love the joust.

  3. Tom Pietsch says:

    Hi David,

    Pell had a good article on this in a recent issue of First Things – ‘Intolerant Tolerance’ (

    I especially appreciated his point that, as I understand it, runs something like this. Some believe God made man, others believe man made God. Tolerance used to allow for both of these perspectives. So non-believers would tolerate believers ordering their lives as if God existed, and vice versa. Today, however, it seems that many non-believers only tolerate belief within the one worldview – that man made God. The toleration of a God-centred world view is losing ground, to the one materialistic world view in which classical Christianity is suffocated and marginalised.

    Tom Pietsch

  4. Kiran says:

    Another question one might ask, of course, with Wittgenstein, is whether religion as a purely private matter is coherent at all.

  5. PM says:

    Those of us north of the Murray call the Rage’s sister publication the Sydney Moaning Herald. Igather it had to tone down its rabid crusade against World Youth Day when it started losing subscriptions by the thousand.

  6. Joshua says:

    The Melbourne seminarians have long nicknamed that journal “The Gay Age” (“gay” both as in “lame” and as in “lifestyle choices counter to the Gospel”).

    I believe they may have been provoked to do so by an article about their seminary and themselves that was run in a Melbourne paper – entitled, “Wanted: Priests Who Don’t Prey”. A nasty little play on words, worthy of the dread Muriel Porter herself.

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