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Injustice not an article of faith for all churches

IN the outcry about the exemptions granted to faith-based organisations in the federal government's proposed anti-discrimination legislation, the fact that some of these very organisations think differently has been largely overlooked.

For some churches, freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to discriminate.

Across many church agencies, a commitment to non-discriminatory employment is keenly observed in the employment of teachers, ground staff, nurses or social workers.

This commitment arises from some of the core principles of Christian faith.

In the eyes of God, everyone is of value; everyone is precious.

The miraculous healing stories in the gospels, regardless of whether you believe in their literal truth or not, are demonstrations of a love that reaches out to those suffering prejudice, a love that challenges the systems, religious or otherwise, that force people to the edges of society, where they have no chance of flourishing.

The Christian church has all too often failed to demonstrate this unconditional love.

We have, over the centuries, perpetrated and condoned – often by our silence – prejudice, violence and abuse.

We are still a long way from blameless.

It is no wonder, then, that many have stopped listening so that even when we do speak of our vision of hope, justice and inclusion, we are rarely heard, as has been the case over the last few days.

The Uniting Church is the third-largest Christian denomination in the country and it represents a significant mainstream Christian perspective.

We oppose the federal government's religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws on all grounds other than ordination and appointments to significant leadership roles.

Yet, on this issue, our voice has been ignored by the government.

Balancing competing rights is not easy for governments and balancing the right to freedom of religion and belief with other rights is one of the most difficult and contentious areas.

This is important legislation and should be passed.

But we would like there to be amendments to the broad exceptions made for religious organisations in employment and other situations.

The inclusion of such attributes as pregnancy and potential pregnancy in the current exception is offensive.

One can only imagine how this may be used against women.

These must be removed.

Terms in legislation such as ''conforms to the doctrine, tenets or beliefs of that religion'' and ''necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion'' are ones my unit, UnitingJustice Australia, has been concerned by.

Some of the most important debates we have in the Uniting Church are about which of our ''beliefs'' are core to the doctrine (orthodox) or reasonable expressions of theological diversity within the Protestant tradition.

One of the strengths of the Uniting Church is a capacity to live with diversity.

But if we sometimes have trouble defining this, how fraught would it be for a secular tribunal or court to determine?

When it comes to what injures our ''religious sensitivities'', there are numerous examples of how different individual members of my church can take offence.

Personally, I have no expectation that my religious sensitivities should be any more privileged than the sensitivities other people may have about matters to do with sexuality, marriage or gender identity.

The core issues here should actually be about mutual respect, care and the acceptance of the value of diversity for a healthy society. This legislation is an opportunity to encourage greater equity for all Australians. We should make the most of it.

Regardless of its final shape, the Uniting Church, its councils and its agencies will continue to uphold our commitment to non-discriminatory employment practices. Living God's mission to love without distinction and work for justice and peace in the world demands this of us.

Rev Elenie Poulos is the national director of UnitingJustice Australia, the justice policy and advocacy unit of the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly.

Article originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald Opinion section.