Garrett Bithell | Sx Magazine | 30 September 2011
Revered social commentator and journalist David Marr is a persistent questioner of the status quo. This weekend, at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, he is turning his razor-sharp powers of reasoning to the issue of religious exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation and the Australian Christian Lobby's Jim Wallace. Marr speaks to Garrett Bithell ahead of the highly-anticipated clash.
"Did you know there is a provision of the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act that allows a private school to expel any child simply for being gay? Isn't that good?"
The posh, nuanced voice of seminal commentator and Sydney Morning Herald journalist David Marr is tempered by a lethal combination of restrained anger and bitter sarcasm. "That's in our legislation," he reiterates. "You can be expelled from a private school simply for being gay. It's there!"
Marr, of course, is correct. Section 49ZO of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), which basically states that it is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the ground of homosexuality, contains a nasty little subsection at the end. Allow me to quote section 49ZO(3): "Nothing in this section applies to or in respect of a private educational authority." It follows that if Sydney Grammar School, for example, was to expel a student for being gay, there is nothing the law could do about it.
In an age when the fight for equal marriage rights dominates GLBT activism, the startling, sweeping exemptions religious organisations, of all faiths, have from anti-discrimination legislation is sometimes forgotten. But the issue is set to be brought to the fore when Marr locks horns with Jim Wallace, Managing Director of the uncompromising Australian Christian Lobby, on the subject 'Gays and Lesbians Do Not Belong in the Classroom', as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House this weekend.
As Marr asserts, because marriage equality will largely be a symbolic victory in this country, religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws represent the biggest threat to substantive equality we face. "I feel a lot more strongly about this than gay marriage," he tells SX. "Gay marriage is inevitable and it's right, but in Australia gay marriage is symbolic. It's very, very important symbolism, but meanwhile there are laws that actually impact on gays and lesbians."
To wit, religious organisations have the point-blank right to decide who they employ in their schools – and who they sack – based on questions of faith and morals. While for many Australians, the idea that gay men and women don't belong in the classroom is an unjust anachronism, parents are opting, in larger numbers, to send their children to these schools that offer a 'values-driven' education.
"What I find impossible to believe is that a grown-up, modern, kind, secular society offers churches the capacity to continue to punish people through employment for not living up to the churches' rules of sex," Marr says. "We're not talking about little boutique operations here. Church schools and hospitals are the biggest private employers in this country, and they are exempt from anti-discrimination laws. So there's a highway through anti-discrimination legislation."
For Marr, who's openly gay, the debate on Sunday is personal. "I certainly want Jim to tell me exactly why I – or my partner and half my friends – can't be employed by one of his organisations. What is it that we bring? What about the other sins and broken commandments? No, they don't matter! You can hire people who are greedy, or who don't love their mother and father, but you can't hire a person who goes to bed with somebody who has the same genitals as them."
The great folly is that amidst a tide of cultural change that has seen "the religious highway through anti-discrimination turned into a back lane" in places like Great Britain and the United States, Australia still sees the issue of exemptions as one of religious freedom. "We just don't get it in Australia," Marr states. "Politicians are scared stiff – they are so scared stiff they won't even take on the Scientologists, let alone the Anglicans! And when you've got a state that won't take on the Scientologists, you've got a completely gutless state.
"There are all sorts of religious practices that are forbidden by the state, like polygamy and genital mutilation, but we continue to honour religious bigotry about sex in employment law."
The exceptional power religious organisations continue to wield over our supposedly secular democracy is also the reason we still don't have a Bill of Rights, Marr continues. "I don't think people understand," he says. "It's not just the opposition of News Limited, which is perverse and interesting in its own way, but it's the absolutely immovable opposition of the Catholic Church – because they believe they have a much better chance of preserving their hold [on politics] through direct political influence rather than judicial decision-making."
As Stephen Fry once said, the Catholic Church is obsessed with sex. The only people who are obsessed with food, he continued, are anorexics and the morbidly obese – and that, in erotic terms, is the Catholic Church in a nutshell. "It's about power," Marr concludes. "If you can stand between somebody and their most basic instinct, then you have immense power over them. If the church is the gateway to sex, family and pleasure, it's hugely bloody powerful."
Moreover, one of the Church's most bizarre notions – and one that Wallace as a highly enthusiastic hard-line Christian wholly embraces – is that there is a place in the church for gay people, so long as we don't act on what even he acknowledges is a primal impulse. "It's mind-blowing, but one thing about Christianity – and also Islam – is that the capacity to give something up that is natural has always been seen as a measure of holiness," Marr tells. "So someone of Jim's tradition can go, 'so you're a poof? Just don't have sex and you'll be alright'. For them, that is not quite as ridiculous as it sounds to a secular human being. That might make you happy Jim, but your happiness is not really my first concern here."
The pitiful irony inherent in this ridiculously contentious issue is that "even the believers don't believe it anymore".
"Many church-people admit that if they actually enforced their own rules, and weeded out all of the lesbians from church-run old people's homes for example, or all of the poofs from Catholic hospitals, parishes would rise up in revolt! Therefore the rules are used in crueller ways – to pick people off, to bully people, to refuse to hire people."
Ultimately, the way we balance religious values and equality is staggeringly off-kilter. As Marr stipulates, religious freedom cannot be used as a trump card at the expense of a greater human rights framework. "We cannot give the religious a veto argument," he says. "It's pretty easy to reconcile [this issue] and many states do: When it comes to who runs church organisations – who their priests are – that's for them. But when it comes to employment to do work for church organisations, they don't, in my view, have a right to be exempted from anti-discrimination law.
"This religious vetoing has to stop, and I can't wait to come to grips with Jim on Sunday."