Equal Voices Submission on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019

Equal Voices Submission on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019

For those of you who haven’t got time to read through the lengthy Equal Voices submission to the ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills, below is a summary, highlighting its key themes.  For the full document click here.

The government has released what’s called an ‘exposure draft’ of its ‘Religious Freedom’ legislation, which is part of its response to the Religious Freedom Review, chaired by Philip Ruddock, which came on the heels of the legalisation of marriage equality. The centrepiece law is the Religious Discrimination Bill (the Bill). This would add to four existing federal discrimination laws (race, sex, disability & age) protection based on the attribute of religion. It is already unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of religion under the Fair Work Act. All states and territories have separate discrimination laws and all except South Australia and NSW cover ‘religion’.

It has long been recognised that there is a gap, small but significant, in relation to protection for religion at the federal level. We commend the government for attempting to fill this. The Attorney-General flagged that he would introduce a ‘conventional’ discrimination law, that is one that mirrors existing laws. The majority of this Bill is conventional. However, three clauses in particular stand out as literally extra-ordinary, sections 8, 10 and 41. Additional, important problems with the operation of the Bill are amplified by these sections.

Due to time limits Equal Voices’ submission focused on the problems raised by section 10. This clause governs the operation of the law in relation to ‘religious bodies’. The way the section operates, combined with the definition of ‘religious bodies’ means that this part functions as a form of legal immunity for many religious bodies to discriminate, or a broad-based religious exemption. Equal Voices raises objections to this due to demonstrated and in-principle risks for religious bodies to engage in unjustifiable discrimination. The submission makes four specific proposals to limit the potential for unjustifiable discrimination available under s 10.

The first is to reduce the range of bodies that qualify for the exemption. This is based on the general principle that those in the private sphere should enjoy less legal regulation than those in the public domain. For instance, discrimination law doesn’t generally operate in private households. Section 10 reduces the regulation of religious bodies by exonerating them from the operation of the law. But many religious bodies are very large enterprises, many receive substantial public funding and provide large-scale services to the public. It is inappropriate to treat them just as if they were a private household or voluntary club or association.

The second proposal addresses the Bill’s eccentric definition of religious bodies (or institutions) as ‘natural persons’. The definition is frankly inexplicable. Neither domestic nor international law give institutions attributes such as sex, disability, age, etc. Section 10 gives institutions protection, while giving individuals within them little or no equivalent safeguard. The submission highlights the power imbalances that operate between individuals and institutions and gives examples. The definition should be removed.

The third proposal is to change the way the section activates its immunity for religious bodies, which we call the ‘conduct standard’. This involves how a religious belief can be used to justify conduct so it becomes exempt under s 10. The laxer the standard, the more types of conduct are justifiable. In the context of religious bodies, this may permit arbitrary decision-making, and the submission illustrates this by reference to two cases of discrimination.

The fourth proposal is a safeguard provision to make sure that section 10 doesn’t detract from existing protections under other laws. Other parts of the Bill expressly override other discrimination laws (s 41). While section 10 is intended to provide an exemption only for discrimination related to religion, many experts believe that it may indirectly permit discrimination on the grounds of other attributes. This has the effect of indirectly shoring up, or even extending, exemptions under other laws. Given the behaviour of some religious bodies, this is especially troubling for LGBTIQ+ people and allies.

The submission makes a number of other more minor recommendations on other sections and provisions of the Bill. These align with the recommendations of many other stakeholders and legal experts.

Become a member – Meet Simon

Become a member – Meet Simon

Equal Voices has the vision of an equal place at the table. We are LGBTIQA+ people with our allies connecting, collaborating and advocating across Australia on matters of inclusion. We are supporting Australian churches and society in becoming fully affirming which means they acknowledge, respect, utilise and celebrate the gifts of all people, regardless of sexuality, gender identity or intersex status.

Today we ask you to join us in this work for 2019, click membership to sign up now.

We would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to just one of our members, Simon*. Simon has been a member of Equal Voices since early 2018.  Equal Voices has empowered Simon and others like him to claim his place at the table and work towards inclusion for all. For Simon, working with Equal voices for the inclusion of all has been life changing.

This is Simon’s story. Simon was raised in the Church, attended a Christian School and thrived in his Christian community. He was very active in his church, running youth groups, leadership training, preaching and teaching, but he had a secret. He was attracted to other men.

 The teaching he had grown up with in the Church was that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer was evil, was a lie of the devil and a sickness from which a person could be healed. Simon remembers one sermon that described being gay as a form of idolatry – because your passion and desire has turned from God and onto people of the same sex and, by extension, yourself.

In his youth, Simon internalised these beliefs. Over and over, he was led to believe that being gay was contrary to God’s design, and that there was a sickness inside of him. Simon tried for years to change himself. He prayed night and day, pleading with God to take away the darkness inside of him.

Simon shares a story when he was in his early 20’s;

“After leaving church, I was walking home. I had a powerful experience of God during that service. I felt like my curse had been lifted. However, on the way home, I noticed another man. There was a brief smile between the two of us as we walked past each other. This was enough for me to spiral down into the lowest depth. I remember praying, begging that God would make me blind so that I would no longer be tempted in my thoughts.”

For years Simon continued to pray daily that God would change him. It eventually became too much to bear. The years of emotional turmoil had taken its toll and Simon had become seriously mentally ill and was contemplating ending his life. Simon recalled,

“There was no other way out. I had been to prayer meeting after prayer meeting. Confessed and re-confessed. Healed and then broken again. The only conclusion I had was that God wouldn’t heal me so God must have abandoned me. I was too much of a mess even for God. The only way out I could see was to end my life.”

Simon slowly began to recover, but the sense that God had abandoned him remained. When Simon first met another gay Christian he finally realised he wasn’t alone. In talking with other gay Christians, Simon learnt that there were other ways to understand the Bible, and that LGBTIQA+ people are fearfully and wonderfully created in the image of God. God created and loves LGBTIQA+ people.

Simon wishes that Equal Voices had existed when he was going through his darkest time.

“The work that Equal Voices is doing is lifesaving. It is the leading voice in the Christian community declaring the truth that God loves LGBTIQA+ people.”   

Simon is now part of the Equal Voice’s alliance of LGBTIQA+ Christians and allies. Equal Voices is connecting, collaborating and advocating across Australia on matters of inclusion. They are supporting Australian churches and society in becoming fully affirming which means they acknowledge, respect, and celebrate the gifts of all people, regardless of, sexuality, gender identity or intersex status.

At Equal voices we are building a movement, but we are still only just beginning.

Will you join us in this movement? Click membership to become a member today. For $25, you can become a member and be part of this affirming movement. By becoming a member you are helping us create change.  For $500, you can become a lifetime member.

Instructions: To become a member we ask that you go to our membership (click this link). Please select the PayPal button below your desired membership level, which includes an option to either login to your PayPal account or pay by card. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address provided.

On behalf of the Equal Voices team we thank you for your support.

*At his request, ‘Simon’ is a pseudonym.


Plunged again into avoidable grief

Plunged again into avoidable grief

Equal Voices grieves with all LGBTIQ+ people who are feeling afresh the pain and trauma of their experiences of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) in Christian churches in the wake of the recent media release from Hillsong (14 February 2019).

Our members come from across Australian churches, denominational affiliations and traditions, and we share a love for Christ’s church and a desire to see all of our churches become truly welcoming and affirming places that acknowledge, respect, utilise and celebrate the gifts of all, regardless of sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Equal Voices acknowledges the terribly destructive impact of SOCE messaging on so many, including the messaging contained in multiple audio cassettes, VHS tapes and other recordings of Hillsong preachers and guest speakers, who use such descriptors as ‘broken,’ ‘damaged’, ‘sinful,’ and ‘not according to God’s plan,’ to describe those who are LGBTIQ+, encouraging them to seek treatment or prayers, and be ‘healed’.

We acknowledge the pain and grief of people who were asked to step down from leadership roles because of their sexual and/or gender diversity. We recognize and stand by our Equal Voices community who express disappointment at Hillsong’s statement. We agree with comments made that it would have been better to acknowledge past wrongdoing and repented of it; thereby offering much needed comfort and support to those so adversely affected.

Equal Voices would like to offer our support to Hillsong to address some of these issues.

Please consider joining the Equal Voices movement if you haven’t already.

Equal Voices Team

A response to ‘those’ words

A response to ‘those’ words

There has been much written about Israel Folau’s recent comments. I could go into a theological treatise about why his interpretation of ‘those’ passages are wrong. I could ask him to think about the impact of his words on people. I could also decry him as not being a ‘real’ Christian. I am not going to do any of those things, and here’s why:

  1. I have spent years in churches which support his view. I know that any type of discussion about his implied theology will most likely lead to the conclusion I am a ‘liberal’ Christian who wants to re-write the Bible in my own image. That is not true, but …
  2. I know that to challenge him regarding the impact of his words, will lead to the response that it is not ‘loving’ to allow people to continue in their sin. In this world, if I am not my brothers’ keeper, I am not really Christian. I don’t think this is true either, but …
  3. I understand that there is no consensus on what it means, or what it takes, to be a ‘real’ Christian. There hasn’t been in the 2000 odd years since Jesus walked the earth, so it would be fairly presumptuous to think we will work it out now. Despite this, the idea of being a ‘real’ Christian takes up took much of the discourse and convinces no-one, except those already on our side. So …

My response is this:

I am so very sorry that once again some of the most vulnerable people in our communities are being made scapegoats of the Church. I am so sorry for the hurt these words will cause you, for the angst that I cannot heal. I am sorry that you may feel self-loathing or that you can never be good enough. I am sorry if these words evoked memories of feeling that way, feelings which, perhaps, you thought were in the past. I am sorry I can’t take away the pain, or hurt or rejection, and I am sorry I cannot silence these voices that speak so prominently in our society in the name of Jesus.

If you have made it this far, and you are still reading, I would like you to know that there are people in the church who empathise, sympathise and welcome you in – just as you are. There are some of us who would like to hear your story. We would like to know how we can help. We would like the chance to journey with you as brothers and sisters, parents and children, lovers and friends. We would love to reach in and heal your wounds, and allow you to reach in and heal some of ours.

Sometimes I dream about an ideal church where no one wounds each other, intentionally or unintentionally. A church where people are happy all the time. A church where we always sing great worship songs (which just happen to coincide precisely with my taste in music). But I know we live in the real world, where real Christians are also real humans. And I wonder if maybe the ideal church is the one where we can ask forgiveness from God, from each other, and from ourselves. Where we can choose to each day try to love one another, just as God made us, with all our differences, abilities and humanness. I wonder if the ideal church is the one where everyone is welcome. Especially you.

The End of the Family?

The End of the Family?

A sermon preached by Associate Professor Michael Horsburgh in St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney, on the First Sunday after Christmas, 31 December 2017

Today’s gospel reading (from Luke 2:22-40) gives us one of the few glimpses we have of the childhood of Jesus. It is the middle of three events, coming immediately after an account of the circumcision and naming of Jesus, and before a later trip to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. It involves a visit from Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem. We become aware that this family are observant in their religious duties.

The point of this story is not the purification ritual of verses 22-24. It is what happens when they arrive. They encounter two elderly and significant persons, Simeon and Anna, both of whom recognise something about the child, something that indicated his future.

Simeon said the now famous Nunc Dimittis. Commentators suggest that this poem marks, for Luke, the end of the Old Testament period; a new age is about to begin. Simeon also predicted the conflicts that will arise when Jesus begins his ministry and the effect that this will have on his mother, Mary. This reading is followed by the account of another visit to Jerusalem, when Jesus was twelve years old. This is the occasion when Jesus stayed behind while his parents and their party set off on their return journey. His parents don’t notice that he is missing. We can hardly imagine such a thing. We keep a better watch on our children. But this part of the story simply reinforces how much family life has changed by narrowing our focus to a close small unit and away from more extended relationships.

But, again, the point of this story is not to expose the parenting practices of the Holy Family. It is to show how Jesus engaged with the scholars in the temple. These three accounts are presented with hindsight. The readers already know how the story ends and who Jesus was. These stories confirm what they already know and show that it was always so, right from the childhood of the Saviour.

Yet, even if these stories contain some reading back of concepts developed later, we find them set within a social structure that had both positive and negative features. We see parents facing up to religious and social customs and struggling to provide for their child in an appropriate way (leaving aside the unusual properties of the child in question).

As I commented in my sermon on Pentecost 2 in June, Old Testament patriarchal family life would certainly be unacceptable today. I noted Sarah and Abraham’s exploitation of the slave Hagar. The typical family structure was extended in ways that we would find impossible. We could go through all the patriarchal families and discover similar unacceptable things. I will also spare you an account of the violence, incest and adultery that marked the family of King David.

Patriarchal families had many features about them that we would find unsatisfactory. We may even regard them as immoral and some features of them would be illegal in our society. As social arrangements, however, they had some strengths. They offered strong social support. Those belonging to such families were enveloped by structures that provided a place for every person. But they also had what we would regard as serious deficits. Those belonging to such families had hardly any individual identity. Indeed, concepts such as self-expression, or personal autonomy, would have been unintelligible to them. Those concepts are, however, very much a part of what we regard as proper family life.

On the other hand, the Book of Proverbs ends with the extoling of “the capable wife” and presents a picture of an industrious, intelligent and capable woman who, although still subject to her husband, runs a household and conducts a business that enhances the family’s health.[1] In its treatment of women, the Old Testament is not consistent.

I draw nothing from this except to say that the Bible does not provide a single model for marriage and that much of what it does provide is unsuitable for contemporary family life.

The end of 2017 brought us to the passing of legislation authorising same sex marriage in Australia. It was a fraught debate, with our own diocese contributing $1 million to the No campaign. That donation was controversial and not approved by many in the diocese, including some staunch supporters of the diocesan line. An attempt to debate the donation at the annual Synod meeting was stifled by the cynical use of a procedural device. The authorities obviously did not want to expose division, though it would have been more honest to do so.

Many of us will have voted YES because of, and not despite, our faith. None of you will be surprised to know that I was one of them. Others of us will have voted NO for the same reason, their faith. The formal opposition to the legislation expressed fear about its effects on the institution of marriage and on the family. I don’t need to rehearse those arguments in detail but we should note that the evidence of the Bible itself is of social institutions that changed considerably over time.

The other event at the end of this year that reflects on the family theme is the release of the Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse. The church frequently uses the family as an image for itself. It describes itself as the bride of Christ. It calls us children of God. The relationship between Christ and the church is a primary theme in describing the theology of marriage. Yet, as a family, we, the church, have been sadly deficient, subjecting our children to unacceptable behaviours from those who were supposed to be their protectors.

The Commission’s section on the Anglican Church makes chilling reading.[2] The commissioners have very perceptively analysed the working of our church and made recommendations that are not only appropriate in themselves but are accurately targeted. Our constitutional structure, designed to protect the theological differences we suffer, and heavily influenced by the will of our diocese, makes it almost impossible for us to achieve a national consensus about anything. We have suffered from significant failures of episcopal leadership, often by bishops otherwise held in high regard. We are unable to hold our senior officials responsible for their actions. We have been unaware of the reality and effects of child sexual abuse, even when presented to us directly by the abused.

As a result, children have suffered when they could have been protected. Children continued to suffer when the predators were known and could have been stopped. In the long run, the ordinary people of the church will also suffer as resources are diverted to compensation and protective services.

The changes to the marriage law will not mark the end of family life, given that family life is not, and never has been, a fixed experience. Far more at risk is the image of the church as a family. Commitment, faithfulness and ongoing love are the things that, if we look for them, we will find in families that succeed, regardless of their circumstances and problems. Commitment, faithfulness and ongoing love are the things that we need to foster in our damaged church, if we are to rebuild it. Commitment, faithfulness and ongoing love are the qualities that we should value and support, everywhere.

Lord, have mercy upon us;

Christ, have mercy upon us;

Lord, have mercy upon us.

[1] Proverbs 31:10-31

[2] https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/final_report_-_volume_16_religious_institutions_book_1.pdf Chapter 12, pp. 556-797

Losing Family

Losing Family

I grew up in the church. I grew up loving Jesus and trusting in God. As a child, I was told that the church was my family, that after we died we would be together forever in heaven. I was told that even if I had nothing else I would have the church: my siblings in Christ.

This all changed with the postal survey. The church was supposed to be my family. They were supposed to love me no matter what, because we are all equal under God, and Christ loved us first. But I found myself becoming a second class citizen. My identity was labelled ‘an issue’. I was not appropriate for children or even teenagers. I was a threat to the fabric of the family and society.

Every Sunday I looked around my church and felt more and more alone. I saw people in my family call LGBTQIA+ people degenerates. I saw people I once may have counted as friends sit by in silence when they were told that if I raised a child they would be damaged. To add ultimate insult to injury they did all this while saying that they loved me.

I ended up going to church and looking around at the people I thought were supposed to be my family, wondering which of them despised my non-heterosexuality and considered me an inherent danger to children. Everyone became a potential threat.

It hurt, but I was managing, until my danger to children became the publicly accepted stance of the leadership team at the church I had attended, and everyone in the audience sat there in complicit silence. Then I realised I was alone. I had no family left. I didn’t know if they’d ever been my family. They just wanted a woman who was heterosexual, and when I couldn’t give it to them I was tossed aside ‘out of love’.

So I left.

I never stopped believing in God or trusting in Christ, but I couldn’t stay in the church – my so-called ‘family’. Family is not supposed to make you want to die. Family is not supposed to convince you that you are worthless. There are Christians who’ve supported me, who have loved me in a Christ-like manner, but the Anglican church has made it very clear that I’m not wanted, and my prayer is that one day it will realise what it did to me, and even though I’ll likely be long gone by then, I pray it will vow to never repeat what it has done to us. May others live the life I never could.