Opinion

James Boyce
Government services and religious freedom

It is a peculiar fact that during the same period the number of practising Christians went into sharp decline, the church grew to be larger than it has ever been. Proportionally fewer Australians now attend worship than at any other time in history, and yet never have so many used Christian services. This is a paradox directly relevant to the “religious freedom” debate. The policy agenda being promoted by emboldened activists would not only negatively affect LGBTQIA people, it would impact everyone.

The rapid expansion of church agencies is a direct consequence of the neoliberal reform agenda of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw government contract out the delivery of many state-funded services. While policies in education and health showed a similar trajectory, the change was most marked in community services. As much of the work formerly done by government departments was put to tender, and small organisations struggled to compete, larger church-based agencies grew so rapidly that many soon had budgets that dwarfed their own worshipping communities. So dominant have they become in service provision, the public’s choice of whether they wish to engage with the church has been effectively removed – the only aged-care facility with a bed, the only family support service with a vacancy, the only housing provider with a home is likely to be a Christian institution.

When the Ruddock religious freedom review was belatedly released in December last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed the “walls have been closing in” on believers in Australia. In truth, the walls have been coming down. Almost nowhere else in the developed world, including Britain or the United States, have so many core public services been handed over to the church.

In the 2019 election, the conservative Christian campaign was reduced to a single cause. The traditional evangelical concern with the issues formerly seen to be critical to building a Christian nation were ditched in favour of an all-out assault for the protection of “religious freedom”.

Despite the slogan, the campaign has nothing to do with the freedom to worship – which no one suggests is at risk. Nor is it about implementing the recommendations of the Ruddock review, which the conservative Christian lobby sees as grossly inadequate. Rather, the objective is for all religious organisations to be given an unfettered right, enshrined in law, to “select” staff based on religion, gender identity and sexuality.

The potential implications of this policy program for community service provision are obvious. We entrust our children, our elderly, our friends and our most disadvantaged fellow community members to publicly funded services for care, knowing that our own time of need could also come. Australians have a right to expect the person providing the care is the best person for the job, selected for their skills and capacities to do the work – not for their sexuality or faith.

The standard reply to this argument is that Christian community service agencies are now so professionalised, they won’t want or need to discriminate in staff selection beyond the management level. Even ignoring the issues this raises – are gays and agnostics welcome only if they don’t seek promotion? – it fails to take account of the increasing concern with mission in church welfare agencies.

While there is no doubt most Christian organisations are professional, employing a diversity of staff, this does not mean that big contract deliverers, such as the Salvation Army, are not as focused on their faith as a church school. In fact, as a reliance on government funding has increased, many executives, boards, members and auspice churches are understandably asking, “How are we different from organisations without a faith? What does our Christian mission mean today?”

Two broad answers usually emerge from this reflection. For liberals and progressives, the Christian difference is about emphasising advocacy, innovation and research, and ensuring social justice values influence what and how services are delivered. I have never met anyone who has a problem with this inclusive expression of Christian mission, which has an affirmation of diversity and the dignity of every person at its core.

But for conservative organisations, concern about mission is invariably associated with a discussion about the religious values of their staff. Characteristically, they believe the most important way to maintain a Christian identity is to ensure they have a critical mass of Christian employees. A legislative mandate to choose staff based on religion would almost certainly result in more openly discriminatory employment policies in these agencies.

The likelihood of this has increased in recent years because those who promote a more inclusive idea of Christian mission are on the defensive in almost every denomination. The real-world impact of the evangelical ascendancy on state-funded community services can already be seen. The reason Anglicare Sydney is a noticeably more conservative social welfare agency than Anglicare Victoria is because Sydney is the most doctrinaire diocese in the Anglican Communion. Anglicare jobs in New South Wales are already listed on sites such as Christian Jobs Australia and, while the organisation is not allowed to openly discriminate under current laws, every ad already carries a message honouring Jesus Christ. Upfront discrimination in favour of those who publicly endorse this mission is surely only a legislative reform away.

Publicly funded services are also sometimes delivered by agencies for whom a conservative view of mission is openly celebrated. Hillsong is a publicly funded health and community services provider.

The Liberal Party went to the election with only vague commitments on religious freedom. But the likelihood they can continue to filibuster through promise and procrastination has grown less likely because of supportive signals given by the Western world’s first Pentecostal political leader. Opinions differ on how critical the conservative Christian campaign on behalf of Coalition candidates was to the election outcome. But there is no doubting the widespread expectation that the “I will burn for you” PM will now deliver for his fellow believers. The managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Martyn Iles, believes the government has “a clear mandate to legislate for religious freedom”. His take on this election was simple: “By praying and acting, we have seen a win for religious freedom.”

But if Australians want our essential community services to be delivered by the best possible staff, a right to select employees based on religion must never be enshrined in law. We need to defend the services everyone pays for, most people will use at some point in their lives, and generations of Australians fought to create as an integral component of a just, inclusive and compassionate society. Granting the right to select employees on religious and sexuality grounds will mean principled professionals will seek more inclusive places to work. The LGBTQIA community, which is campaigning to ensure Christian organisations are subject to the same anti-discrimination laws as every other employer, with only carefully targeted exemptions, deserves universal support out of principle and self-interest.

There are no exemptions in the religious freedom campaign. Every Christian education, health and welfare organisation, from the Pentecostal training college awaiting final approval to deliver publicly funded degrees as Alphacrucis College to church-run hospitals, will be exempt from anti-discrimination laws if Scott Morrison delivers for his base.

Churches already have freedom of choice on this issue. They can take part in providing the nation’s essential public services according to laws that prohibit discrimination, or they can, with guaranteed freedom, self-fund their own distinctive expressions of Christian mission. Morrison promised Australians his religion doesn’t influence his politics. Now is the time to make good on this promise. The prime minister must make clear that no group will be given a right to deliver government-funded services in a way that sacrifices the rights and freedoms of others.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Mission statement". Subscribe here.

James Boyce
is a writer and historian who worked for many years with church welfare agencies as a professional social worker and policy consultant.