The government is simply too scared to insist that religious schools grapple with anti-gay prejudice. Photo: Reuters/Tony Gentile
In recent weeks the issue of ''faith-based'' organisations being allowed to discriminate against its employees and those in its care has reached a level of public discussion that is unprecedented in Australia. That's because attitudes have changed.
At issue is the fact that religious organisations are very large employers. They run hospitals, charity groups, nursing homes, employment services and schools. In doing so, these groups have long argued for exemptions to Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of "religious freedom".
In truth this matter is all about maintaining homophobia, not religious freedom.
The Gillard government has grovelled to the religious right to take a big step backwards.
The problem with this is twofold. First, the application of anti-gay discrimination within each religious group is random, unpredictable and inconsistent. People working in these organisations are vulnerable to these exceptional powers and never know when they might be sacked, denied a promotion or downgraded in their role.
Second, is that fact that in the past 15 years the Commonwealth has contracted a lot of its government service delivery to religious groups and then funded them with taxpayers' dollars. Public monies support this private prejudice.
This cannot happen in Britain, where British human rights laws ensure that any religious group that seeks government funds to provide a community service must abide by secular law.
Equally, it cannot happen in Tasmania. Almost a decade ago the island state structured its anti-discrimination laws to deny religious groups any exemptions from the Act, on the grounds of sexual orientation or transsexuality.
As Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Group spokesman Rodney Croome recently pointed out, these measures have led to ''more inclusive, productive and fairer schools and workplaces, and not one single faith-based organisation has complained their religious freedom has been violated''.
Not so on the mainland. The Gillard government has grovelled to the religious right to take a big step backwards. Any electoral support it may have garnered in the past year on the issue of gay marriage has now been lost.
In defending the laws, Australian Christian Lobby head Jim Wallace, said: ''I'm not aware of any Christian organisation that has refused to hire anyone (based on their sexuality), and I've looked.''
The obvious question to ask here is, if the laws are not being used and discrimination isn't happening, why is Wallace so doggedly fighting for their retention?
The answer, of course, is that these laws are being used, do have an impact and serve as a very strong symbol of the church placing itself above the law.
It is also the case that the most insidious and enduring homophobia in the community does not come directly from the application of the law but from the fallout from it. For example, during the bitter campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s to decriminalise male homosexuality in Tasmania and Western Australia, religious groups and anti-gay campaigners would frequently claim that the criminal laws were not being used, so there was no need to change the law. The law, they argued, was needed simply because it had, ''a residual educative impact''.
This so-called residual educative impact meant that many gay men lived in fear for their jobs, careers and welfare – a form of psychological oppression that contributed to and still contributes to, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and suicide among gay males.
This very same systemic homophobia has now shifted to the gay law reform issue in front of us. Let's be clear about this: the main purpose of these special rights being claimed by religious groups is about keeping fear alive, forcing employees and those in their charge to be closeted, insecure, vulnerable and labelled as defective. And all with federal government sanction.
It's also about the ongoing push by the religious right to define homosexuality as behaviour and to prevent it being protected as an innate part of a person's identity, as is gender and colour.
As such, gay people are an understandable target for discrimination.
Unless of course they're in a nursing home.
In a sign of just how badly federal Labor is dealing with this issue, the anti-discrimination reforms would prevent religious-run nursing homes from discriminating against gay staff and the gay and lesbian folk in its care. But no one else. So why stop there? The answer is schools. And this is what this issue is really about. The government is simply too scared to insist that religious schools grapple with anti-gay prejudice and protect gay kids.
Because religious groups continue to assert that homosexuality is ''behaviour'', they take steps to ''minimise the contagion''. Gay teachers are sacked or silenced. Prospective employees are not told that their application failed because they are gay, or presumed to be so. Gay and lesbian kids are expelled or, more commonly, made so miserable they leave the school. Same-sex partners are forbidden entry to school functions. Bullying of gay students goes unchallenged.
This is not to suggest that all religious schools behave in this way or that similar levels of anti-gay prejudice cannot be found in public schools, however, the evidence shows it's more common and often more acute in religious schools.
It's good that the federal government is proposing to remove homophobia and anti-gay discrimination from elderly people in nursing homes, but isn't that a bit late?
How about giving gay and lesbian people a better chance at a longer and happier life by extinguishing the prejudice when they are about to start their lives?
The legislation before parliament is woefully inadequate, entrenches discrimination and uses taxpayer funds to sustain religious bigotry. You cannot have freedom of religion unless you also have freedom from it.
Brian Greig OAM, is a former Democrats senator and veteran gay rights campaigner.