ACL director Martyn Iles says businesses should have greater powers to hire and fire, but denies Christians have a ‘special vendetta’ against LGBT people
By Paul Karp
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
The Australian Christian Lobby has backed calls for religious businesses such as aged care providers to gain more powers of hiring and firing employees who do not conform to religious teachings.
In a debate at the National Press Club on Wednesday the ACL director Martyn Iles backed calls from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for greater powers to fire employees who don’t conform to a “Christian sexual ethic” but claimed Christians don’t have a “special vendetta” against the LGBT community.
The intervention comes as the attorney general Christian Porter considers possible amendments to the controversial religious discrimination bill exposure draft before parliament returns next week.
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie has declared she sees no case for the bill but Labor has reserved its position, anticipating that the Coalition will need to make further changes to appease conservatives in its party.
Porter has said he is seeking “an acceptable middle ground” between equality advocates and employers who fear it will license bullying and discrimination on other protected grounds – such as sex, sexuality, gender diversity, race and disability – and conservative religious groups which want even greater rights for organised religion.
Although hiring and firing of gay teachers and expelling gay students is the subject of a separate reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission, the bill states in section 10 that a religious body “does not discriminate against a person under this Act” by conduct which “may reasonably be regarded” as in line with that religion.
Submissions from Equality Australia and a group of discrimination law experts have warned that could open the door to expelling gay students or discriminating against LGBTI people, unmarried or pregnant women by claiming to discriminate based on the person’s religion rather than other protected attributes.
At the debate, ambassador of the National Secular Lobby, Fiona Patten, warned the ACL and Catholic church want to “extend the ability to hire and fire” to their commercial businesses which would be “very dangerous” and “extremely exclusive” to staff and patients of aged care.
Iles defended the prospect of hiring and firing based on the “Christian sexual ethic … that sexual relations are for one man and one woman” to the exclusion of others.
Iles rejected the view that “Christians have this special vendetta where it’s the LGBTI community that’s always going to be excluded”.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said, noting that Christianity teaches that “every single one of us is a sinner” and he could be sacked for an act of infidelity.
“There should be no surprises. If somebody gets a job … it should be clear what the beliefs of the organisation are, and it shouldn’t be a shock.”
After defending the wholesale expansion of existing powers for several minutes, Iles then noted that section 41 of the bill only exempts religious speech from anti-discrimination laws, suggesting this meant the ability to hire and fire on religious beliefs “really has nothing to do” with the bill.
The Australian Industry Group submission to the attorney general department’s consultation warned that the bill bans employers from setting codes of conduct which indirectly discriminate on the grounds of religion and could come into conflict with policies designed to promote tolerance and diversity.
It warned the bill could “limit the ability for employers to regulate, respond and manage instances of inappropriate conduct by an employee that may cause conflict with, or detriment to, co-workers notwithstanding that such conduct may occur when an employee is not performing work”.
“The potential for the provisions of the proposed legislation to be used to advance and protect extremist opinions or behaviour, of whatever kind, in the name of an undefined religious belief should not be underestimated.”
In a statement Porter acknowledged business and LGBTIQ groups’ concerns and noted that some – but not all – religious groups had called for “even more minimal limits on what religious Australians can say” and expanding the definition of religious organisation to grant “the broad discretion to deal with staff and customers on a faith basis”.
“This bill seeks to balance those views and that balancing process will continue as we consider the submissions in full,” he said.
At the Press Club, Patten argued the bill was inconsistent because it protects religious people’s views where they may “reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with their religious beliefs” but non-religious views only receive protection for views that “arise directly from their lack of religious beliefs”.
Patten suggested if there were concerns about what employers controlling what workers said outside the workplace – as occurred in the instance of rugby player Israel Folau – the government should inquire into amending the Fair Work Act to protect “all employees, not just those with a religious belief”.
Iles agreed that a “broader freedom of speech-type proposal … would be better”.
“I’m not out here to say religious people should say things that others are not allowed to say. I think everyone should be treated the same way in that respect.”