Australia: Israel Folau and the tension at the heart of religious freedom

Andrew West is the host and editor of The Religion & Ethics Report on ABC Radio National.

Standing at the lectern of his evangelical church in Sydney’s north-western suburbs last Sunday, Israel Folau was unbound and unbowed.

Australia’s top footballer had already lost his job with Rugby Australia after paraphrasing the Bible in a tweet warning that unrepentant gays, adulterers, drunkards and idolaters were destined for hell. Now he was preaching that the devil had influenced governments to allow primary school children to change their gender.

Folau is challenging his dismissal in the Fair Work Commission, arguing Rugby Australia violated his religious freedom. The commission’s decision will reverberate through workplaces and institutions where religious people fear discrimination – and where others believe religious authorities might discriminate against them.

At stake are two core democratic principles.

The first is the right to believe in a religion, to manifest these beliefs in private and public, and to educate one’s children according to these beliefs. They are rights enshrined in section 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which Australia was an original signatory.

But within article 18, there is also a tension. Governments can limit religious freedom if it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. More than a third of Australian students are educated in private schools, the overwhelming number of them religious, at least to some extent. Twenty-three of the 25 biggest private welfare agencies in Australia are faith-based.

With 250,000 employees across its schools, universities, hospitals and welfare agencies, the Catholic church is the biggest non-government employer in the country. The Uniting church employs 50,000 people in its aged care, disability and youth services.

Almost all faith-based organisations ask staff to sign up to a particular “ethos”. Mostly it is a general commitment to service before self. Rarely does it transgress into the private lives of staff. But when it does – potentially or actually – the results can be divisive.

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