Christ religion

Opinion of Matt Cunningham: Religion at risk in Northern Territory law change

THEY say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It would perhaps be an overstatement to say that the Northern Territory Government landed in hell with its anti-discrimination legislationbut it certainly upset the believers.

Changes to the law will mean that a faith school will no longer be able to exclude a job applicant on the grounds that they do not belong to that school’s religion.

It will also remove an exemption (in Section 37A) that allows faith-based schools to exclude an applicant on the grounds of religious belief, activity or sexuality, if done in good faith to avoid offending religious sensitivities of people of the particular religion.

The intent of the bill is clear.

The government believes that a faith-based school should not be able to reject a person’s job application because of their sexuality.

It is not an unreasonable position.

The problem with this modern quest for diversity, inclusion and tolerance is that it now excludes and discriminates against people because of their religion.

This clash of cultures had some high-profile outbursts.

AFLW Muslim Player Haneen Zreika has missed two games in the past two seasons because she refuses to wear the Greater Western Sydney Giants pride sweater.

And seven Christian Manly Sea Eagles players missed an NRL game after it was discovered in a news article that they would be wearing Guernsey pride.

Today, faith groups in the territory are crying foul over the government’s proposed bill.

They believe removing the exemption will expose them to legal challenges and could force them to employ people whose views directly contradict those of their religion. Catholic Bishop Charles Gauci gave the example of a Catholic school being forced to appoint an atheist to a leadership position. Bishop Gauci says he will “seriously consider closing” NT Catholic schools if the legislation is passed.

The government is now sitting in a terrible mess of its own making. It happened because he applied a sledgehammer to a problem that requires nuance and understanding.

He tries to argue that this is just to bring the NT into line with other jurisdictions, but the NT will be the first jurisdiction in the country to remove the Section 37A exemption. It is a politically naïve move that will cost him crucial votes and put the Northern Territories government on a collision course with the federal Labor government, which has pledged to protect the rights of religious schools to privilege people of their faith when selecting personnel.

The government says it removed the Section 37A exemption after extensive community consultation. I attended a community consultation session when these changes were first reported five years ago (my issue was the outrageous attack on free speech previously documented in these pages rather than the issue of schools confessional). There was standing room only at the Casuarina Library as believers pleaded with the government to reconsider.

He did exactly that, but rather than backtracking on his proposed changes based on hundreds of objections, he decided to go further. According to an unnamed government spokeswoman quoted in Monday’s NT News, there has been a recent shift in public opinion on this issue.

“Comments on the draft bill (released in October) however indicated a shift in community opinion towards the removal of Section 37A and the bill presented reflects this,” said the spokesperson.

It’s no surprise that she refused to put her name to this nonsense, as the flood of outrage now coming from faith groups would suggest they were, at best, an exaggeration of what had happened.

The Territory is a wonderful place, full of people from all walks of life.

It’s one of the few cities in the world where people are free to be whoever they want to be, including the nearly 50% who identify as religious. If, like me, you do not subscribe to their beliefs, you are free to avoid their institutions. Today, in its apparent pursuit of tolerance and inclusion, the territorial government risks discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs.

Matt Cunningham is Sky News’ Northern Australia correspondent