Saturday, February 12, 2011

Religious Intolerance

Why do we, as a society, put up with discrimination as long as it comes from religion? It seems that bad behaviour gets a free pass as long as it’s in line with ancient traditions and given a veneer of respectability by being tied to ritual.

There’s a perfect example in the paper today, dealing with New South Wales’ anti-discrimination laws, which provide an exception for religious schools. These schools are permitted to expel homosexual students. They can also fire or block the advancement of homosexual teachers, or those who are divorced or become single parents.

Commenting on the law, the NSW Attorney-General commented that a balance must be struck “between protecting individuals from unlawful discrimination while allowing people to practise their own beliefs.”

Sounds good. Now, how far does this go? What religious beliefs wouldn’t be tolerated? Would we let religious schools discriminate on the basis of race? What about gender? If not, why not? By what basis would we permit discrimination on the basis of sexuality (or marital status) but not race and gender? It would please me greatly if the Attorney-General of New South Wales would clarify this point.

Aside from this clause making a joke of both sexuality as a protected category, it throws the issue of permissibility of religious intolerance into sharp relief. I think it has something to do with the notion that churches, as many religious advocates will tell you, are where flawed humans learn about morals. This gives any church activity a sheen of morality and a sense of decency. Thus, they don’t attract as much criticism: if a church takes an action out of their sense of morality, then it’s permissible. It raises attention only when the church goes against its moral sense, or performs actions that are well outside of the community’s morality.

The greatest example of this in recent memory is the Catholic Church’s treatment of abuse cases. Not only was the Church hypocritical in its handling of the cases, it offended community sensibilities. The community found itself in a position of being morally superior to the supposed source of morality and, seeing the feet of clay, reacted harshly.

If this is the case, it says one sad but obvious thing about the NSW law: discriminating against homosexuals is not far enough outside of community sensibilities that it raises ire. At least, it isn’t when churches do it. Apparently, enough people look the situation and shrug... or even approve. After all, how is ‘churches discriminate against homosexuals’ new? Sadly, it isn’t; while gay-friendly churches do exist, the best homosexuals can expect from most of them is to be ignored. It is a sad moment, however, when such discrimination on the public purse is met with such apathy... or even outright defence of the action. Remember that private and religious schools receive part-government funding in Australia, funding that appears to come with few strings.

In the United States, a country dominated by religious rhetoric, not even the Boy Scouts were immune to following anti-discrimination laws when they received government funding. If churches are to be free to follow their conscience, then there’s no reason that taxpayers have to fund that. If they want to make a real moral choice, then they can choose between discrimination and government funding.

I think that, in truth, most of society has shed much idea that churches a more moral than other institutions. While the general sense lingers on after the concept has fled, there have been enough scandals that the aura of sanctity has faded from all churches, not just the Catholic. I believe we're ready to move against this sort of thing, and it's an important fight. Religion is the last great excuse for prejudice and homosexuals (and single mothers) are one of the last great legitimate targets for prejudice. The more this is talked about, the harder it'll be for them to keep it up.

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