Hillsong Megachurch, Australia's Top Churches Ask to Be Exempt From Anti-Discrimination Laws

(Photo: Hillsong Church)Pastor Brian Houston appears on stage during Hillsong's 2014 conference in New York City at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Hillsong Church and a number of other top Christian organizations in Australia have asked the government that they be exempt from anti-discrimination laws, including in the case of hiring and firing employees.

"We've never needed to protect religious freedom before, but now we do," said Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney and a board member at Freedom for Faith, the think tank that submitted a religious freedom act proposal. 

Following the legalization of same-sex marriage in the country last year, Christians have been expressing concern over their ability to live out their beliefs without being penalized. Parkinson said in his over 100-page submission to the Ruddock Review (which was created to examine whether Australian law protects freedom of religion) that there has been a "persistent campaign to remove religious exemptions in anti-discrimination law."

"Our society is changing: hostility towards people of faith is increasing, exemptions in anti-discrimination laws necessitated by religious beliefs are being increasingly challenged, and people of faith are experiencing increasing discrimination and attacks on their freedom of speech and association," he wrote, noting that there is "almost no legal protection for freedom of religion in Australia."

And while religious freedom has broad support in the country, many confine it "to be nothing more than freedom of belief and worship (which is not under threat)," he pointed out.

"If religious freedom impacts upon anyone else's rights, on this view, religious freedom must always give way."

The Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney are two other notable groups that have joined Hillsong in endorsing the request to the government.

Parkinson contended that their proposal does not seek to "wind back any legal rights of those who identify as LGBT," nor are they seeking "special privileges" for people of faith. They simply desire that people of faith be able to "live and let live" with other members of the community.

The proposal stressed the need for protections of religious organizations, including schools, in hiring and firing practices.

"The most important issue for Christians, and, we understand, for most other faith groups, is not the freedom to discriminate, but the freedom to select on the basis of religious belief and practice, and freedom to take adverse action against an employee if necessary, where issues of personal conduct are incompatible with the values of the employing organization," Parkison said.

"If a Christian school cannot advertise for staff with one criterion being their adherence to Christian beliefs, or even to give preference to staff who hold Christian beliefs, then within a fairly short period of time, the staff profile of the school will be indistinguishable from the state school next door. There really is no point in having a Christian school if the only staff who need to be Christians are the School Principal, the Chaplain and the religious studies teacher."

The churches are also asking for guarantees that school chapels will not be used for gay weddings if it goes against the wishes of the diocese. They also ask for parents to have the right to remove children from school programs that don't agree with their values.

The call for religious freedom protections was made in the immediate aftermath by several different churches in Australia after the release of the results of a national postal survey in November, where 61.6 percent of voters backed gay marriage.

"Parliamentarians must recognize and respect the concerns of the more than 4.8 million Australians who opposed a change to the definition of marriage by putting in place strong conscience and religious freedom protections," urged Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President Archbishop Denis Hart in a statement at the time.

"These protections must ensure that Australians can continue to express their views on marriage, that faith-based schools can continue to teach the traditional understanding of marriage and that organisations can continue to operate in a manner that is consistent with those values."

Brian Houston, Hillsong's senior pastor, noted that his beliefs on the Bible's teachings on marriage will not change despite the change in marriage law and called for the protection of religious freedom.

"Freedom of religion is a fundamental part of a democratic society and must be upheld. Any attempt to force Christians to compromise their faith would be wrong," Houston stated.

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