Is it ever right to discriminate? Those opposed to the draft anti-discrimination Bill, about to be tabled in federal Parliament, answer no, writes Kevin Donnelly in The Herald-Sun.
Critics are angry that the draft Bill, as currently occurs in Victoria, will allow religious organisations to discriminate in areas such as employment.
For example, allowing Catholic schools to deny jobs to those whose way of life or beliefs undermine or are contrary to the church's teachings.
What the critics ignore is that the Catholic Church and other religious groups are not alone when arguing that not all rights are equal.
Those pushing progressive, left-of-centre causes like feminism and gay rights also argue that there are occasions when it's acceptable to discriminate. For years, feminists have argued that there should be women-only gyms where men are denied entry.
Some feminists also argue that there should be quotas for women in politics and business, guaranteeing them positions and discriminating against men of equal merit and ability. Those in favour of multiculturalism argue that swimming pools should restrict entry at certain times to allow only Muslim women to swim.
If it's acceptable for those advocating progressive, left-of-centre causes to discriminate by arguing that some beliefs must take priority over others, then religious organisations like Catholic schools should have the same freedom.
Like freedom of expression, of the press and freedom to vote, the right to live according to one's religious beliefs is a cornerstone of Western, liberal democracies like Australia.
Doctors and nurses whose religion teaches them that medical practices such as euthanasia and abortion are morally wrong should not be coerced into performing such acts or be penalised if they refuse.
In areas such as education, parents committed to a particular religion must have the right to send their children to schools that reflect and teach their morals and beliefs.
Surveys show a key reason parents choose faith-based schools is because they are religious. The school's culture, daily routine and the prism through which subjects are taught reflect the beliefs that give schools their unique character and that differentiate them from state-controlled, secular schools.
If faith-based schools are to fulfil parents' expectations and remain true to their particular religion, then they must have control over who they enrol and who they employ.
To deny such a right would mean that religious schools would be forced to employ teachers - for example, agnostics or atheists - whose beliefs are opposed to what the school stands for.
Another argument against faith-based schools, hospitals, community services and aged care homes being allowed to discriminate is that they accept taxpayer funds.
Ignored is that taxpayer funds originate not from governments but from taxpayers, either through PAYE or GST. Parents who decide to send their children to faith-based schools, for example, are taxpayers and have every right to expect some of their money will be returned to pay for their children's schooling.
And it's not as though such parents are a drain on government. In addition to paying for a school system they don't use, the fact they pay to enrol their children in religious schools and not government schools saves state and federal governments more than $6 billion a year.
When it comes to discrimination, the reality is that not all rights are absolute and there must be occasions when an individual's right to do what he or she wants has to be qualified. Freedom of speech, as an American Supreme Court judge once said, does not mean the right to falsely shout fire in a crowded cinema. Faith-based organisations deserve the right to manage their affairs according to the dictates of their particular religion.
FULL STORY: Belief is central to the discrimination debate (Herald Sun))