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Australian football boss’ resignation over ties to church sets a 'dangerous' precedent, critics say

Andrew Thorburn
Andrew Thorburn |

The recent resignation of the Christian chief executive of an Australian Football League club over his connection to a church that holds traditional views on marriage and abortion has drawn the ire of critics who warn of the implications for religious freedom.

Earlier this month, Andrew Thorburn resigned as the CEO of the Essendon Football Club in Melbourne the day after his appointment. His resignation came after it was reported that he also serves as chairman of the City on a Hill church, which opposes homosexuality and abortion. 

In a statement announcing Thornburn's resignation, the club said that it acted after
"comments relating to a 2013 sermon from a pastor" came to light. Saying that the church's views are "in direct contradiction to our values as a club," the Bombers told Thornburn that "he couldn't continue to serve in his dual roles at the Essendon Football Club and as chairman of City on a Hill."

The team stressed that the resignation was "not about vilifying anyone for their personal religious beliefs," but instead "a clear conflict of interest with an organisation whose views do not align at all with our values as a safe, inclusive, diverse and welcoming club."

In his statement, Thornburn acknowledged that it has become "clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many."

Thorburn underlined that tolerance, inclusion and diversity also include people of faith.

"Freedoms of thought, conscience, religion and association are fundamental human rights, explicitly recognised in Victorian law in our Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and Racial and Religious Tolerance Act," he said in a statement shared by News.com.au. "I genuinely and passionately believe people can hold different views on complex personal and moral matters while being able to live and work together respectfully and harmoniously. That is true inclusion whereby our communities are enriched by difference."

The resignation has sparked much debate worldwide, with some critics saying it shows a lack of tolerance for Christian beliefs. In an op-ed for the Spectator Australia titled "A new age of Christian persecution," writer Joel Agius argues that Thornburg was "hounded out of a job by the incessant hateful rhetoric from anti-Christian bigots in the community who joined in."

"In Australia, and other similar Western nations, that type of violent persecution is not evident. Obviously, no one in Australia is being murdered for their faith in God," he wrote. "But there is another type of persecution that is occurring, and this one seems to be ramping up into something that could easily lead to dire repercussions for the Christian community in this nation."

"Persecution of Christians is seemingly becoming fashionable again. Anti-Christian bigotry is being paraded around as some warped sense of virtue," he claimed.

David Robertson, who leads The Ask Project, which helps churches in efforts to evangelize, argued in an op-ed that the football club discriminated against Thornburn because of his religious beliefs even if they never asked him during the interview process about his beliefs or religious affiliations.

"In other words, once they did check Thorburn's religious beliefs (or the beliefs of the church he belongs to), they then decided to discriminate and determine that he was not a suitable candidate," he wrote.

"The Essendon board declared that this was nothing to do with religious beliefs and that Essendon was a club where everyone was welcomed and respected," Robertson added. "If Essendon really was a club where everyone was welcomed and respected, then they would welcome Andrew Thorburn — but by 'acting' on the basis of the beliefs of Thorburn's church, the Essendon Board have told all Muslims, Catholics, Evangelicals and others that they are not welcome."

Jason Tuazon-McCheyne of the Purple Bombers, the LGBT support group of the Essendon Bombers, told 10 News First that he doesn't think its possible to have a person lead one organization that "actively campaigns against LGBTIQ people and then lead another organization at the same time that promotes diversity, equality and inclusion."

Thorburn argued in his statement that how he was treated set a "dangerous" precedent for religious freedom in Australia.

"It is troubling that faith or association with a church, mosque, synagogue or temple could render a person immediately unsuited to holding a particular role," he said. "That is a dangerous idea, one that will only reduce tolerance for others and diversity of thought and participation in our community and workplaces."

Former Prime Minister John Howard remarked last week that the way Thorburn was treated was "preposterous" and against the "spirit of this country," News.com.au reported.

"I thought the treatment of Mr. Thorburn was disgraceful, it can't be excused, it can't be explained away," Howard was quoted as saying. "The idea that because of a religious affiliation a person has he is disbarred from holding a non-religious position for which he is apparently eminently qualified is quite preposterous and I don't think it can be condemned strongly enough."

In an op-ed for Financial Review, columnist John Roscam, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Australian Way of Life at the Institute of Public Affairs, says the resignation "reveals how public life in Australia is now hyper-politicized."

"The personal has truly become the political. Personal faith is no longer personal or private," Roscam contends. "What's expected of people like Thorburn … is a public profession of adherence to the prevailing cultural and political orthodoxy. Neutrality is not enough."

Agius encourages Christians not to be discouraged from sharing their faith with others. 

"Christianity shaped the Western world," he concludes. "It helped to establish a culture of good morals and community. But there are now people who seek to shift the culture entirely to one devoid of morality. Such a culture enables some of the worst aspects of humanity to come to the forefront of society and take hold. It only leads to suffering."

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