The "War on Religion" is Over (the Good Guys Lost)

12 October 2017
The "No" campaign in the same sex marriage plebiscite, knowing they've lost hearts and minds on the issue of marriage equality itself, are claiming that what's really at stake here are freedom of speech and religion.

Their arguments regarding freedom of speech are spurious, as I discussed here; but they make a rather more important point about freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is a losing battle in Australia. Except it's not them that's losing, it's the rest of us. Even as Australia belatedly catches up to the rest of the world on matters like same sex marriage, the influence of organised religion continues to grow and control every aspect of our lives.

The poor old sausages at the Coalition for Marriage worry that if marriage equality becomes law, churches will lose their right to refuse to marry same sex couples. Which is hard to fathom, given that right now churches can refuse to marry anyone they want, for any reason at all. If you're not baptised in the faith, not living in the parish, not a regular attendee at services, divorced or doubting, the church can send you on your way. Given that 70% of couples in Australia now choose to be married by civil celebrants, that's not such a tedious imposition.  People are able to go elsewhere, and do so. (You'd think the churches would be glad of whatever custom they can get). 

In case you missed it, governments across Australia have, in recent years, merrily engaged in the business of privatising every damn thing they can lay their hands on. And when it comes to social services - healthcare, refuges, aged care, welfare, support - churches have fallen over themselves rushing to fill the gap. You might think this is good; that churches can do the work of ministering to the sick, poor and needy better than the government. But the thing is, government departments are bound to serve, and employ, without prejudice. Charities are not. 

For aged care workers, youth and community workers, and healthcare staff, this often means having to attest - even prove - that they share the beliefs and values of the hiring organisation before taking a new job. This might mean anything from having to affirm that the earth was created in 7 days, that men and women have separate roles defined by God, or having to attend regular prayer sessions with co-workers. And it's hard to just look for a job somewhere else when community service industries, hit with the above mentioned neoliberal privatisation, are already suffering from casualisation and uncertain employment and are just run by other churches with their almost unlimited freedom of religion.

(It's a similar situation for teachers working in non-government schools; yet another reason why we must not allow the public school system to be any further eroded).

If it's that bad for staff, the situation for service users - "clients", in the modern economic rationalist speak - is even worse. The scenarios are many and horrifying; women unable to access abortion in church-run hospitals; same sex, even straight unmarried, couples unable to access aged care; people in need denied access to social services, turned away from food banks and shelters.

These are some of the most vulnerable people in society, and they usually don't have a choice to go somewhere else.

Many church run organisations have non-discriminatory policies, but that's up to them; they are free to choose to provide services, or not, as they see fit. There's no anti-discrimination law that comes into play. This is their absolute freedom of religion and the of us can go jump.

And it won't be impinged in any way by the outcome of the same sex marriage plebiscite. Can you imagine the dictate that would come down to Christian churches if legalising gay marriage did hurt their freedom of religion?

"Okay. You're still free to hold your current belief that God created the Earth in 7 days and put dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith. That God created man to lead and woman to be his helpmeet. That the word of the Bible in infallible, even the bits about babies coming out of their mothers bowels and the fact that the divine word of God doesn't even get close to an accurate calculation for pi. You can keep all this, but the part about gay people being sinful, that has to go. In fact, you have to let gay couples get married now. Yes, to each other"

Yeah, nah.

It's important to point out here, of course, that there are religious and charitable organisations doing incredible, hard, thankless work out in the community; I've received some help myself in these last few tumultuous years. But the work they do isn't under threat, worship isn't under threat, there is no threat to freedom of religion from marriage equality.

What there is right now, however, is a lack of freedom. There's no freedom from religion in Australia. Even as social and legislative progress is made in areas like euthanasia, abortion and marriage equality, the role of the church in service provision in Australia grows ever larger. The workers may be dedicated and hard working, but the all powerful organisations behind them set the agenda. There's no war on religion in Australia. It's over. Big Christian won. 


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