Church says no to discrimination

religious freedom

The Uniting Church has affirmed its opposition to all forms of discrimination at a federal government hearing on religious freedom.

On Wednesday, UnitingCare Australia national director Claerwen Little participated in an expert panel review into Australia’s religious freedom laws.

The panel asked representatives from faith-based agencies how changes to the Marriage Act might impact the way they perform their services.

Ms Little said UnitingCare Australia took a different view to a number of other faith-based agencies on religious protections.

“Our agencies are open to all regardless of their race, religion or sexual preference,” Ms Little told the panel.

“In aged care services like Uniting in NSW and the ACT we are actively engaging to make sure that we have special accommodations for people who are in same-sex relationships.

“As an Assembly agency and as the Church, we don’t discriminate in the way we employ our staff, or recruit our carers or with what we do in service.”

In November last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed an expert panel to examine whether Australian law adequately protects religious freedom.

The panel received more than 16,500 submissions.

The Uniting Church Assembly argued for a careful balance between the right to practice religion and freedom from discrimination in its submission.

“The Assembly wishes to reiterate the Uniting Church’s commitment to the right of every person to a robust freedom of religion as described in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the submission said.

“We believe however, that these protections should be set within a broad commitment to the upholding of all human rights, preferably enshrined in the development of a comprehensive Human Rights Act.”

The Uniting Church’s LGBTIQ Network also made a submission to the panel.

Uniting Network national secretary Warren Talbot said the change to the Marriage Act has not reduced religious freedom.

“There is no threat to religious freedom in Australia”, Mr Talbot said.

“Religions remain free to marry, or not marry, couples in accordance with the policy of the religion.”

Mr Talbot argued there are no grounds for further discrimination against LGBTIQ people.

“Faith-based education and community services receive far too many exemptions from anti-discrimination laws,” he said.

“This allows many faith groups to deny basic health, education and community services to LGBTIQ individuals and couples, even when those services are funded by the taxpayer for the common good.

“The Uniting Church has a proud record in defending human rights. All people are the children of God – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.”

Meanwhile, a number of churches have called for stronger laws to give church-run organisations the right to hire and fire staff based on religious values.

The Freedom for Faith think-tank is endorsed by a number of conservative and evangelical church groups, including the Assembly of Confessing Congregations, the Presbyterian Church of Australia, Hillsong and the Anglican diocese of Sydney.

They called for the establishment of a Religious Freedom Act to codify and expand exemptions to anti-discrimination laws in their submission.

“If Christian welfare organisations and aged care and health providers are not permitted to make adherence to the faith selection requirement at any level of the organisation, they will quickly lose their character as faith-based organisations,” their submission said.

“If pastors of churches cannot insist upon their personal assistants or administrative staff being adherents to the faith, that could compromise the work of the Church.”

The expert panel will report its findings to the prime minister by 31 March.

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