Andrew Thorburn Case: when values is about religion

The Andrew Thorburn story is returning to media attention. The Age is tonight* reporting that Thorburn “has hired legal counsel and is pursuing legal action against the club after he was forced to resign.”

Thorburn lasted as Essendon’s CEO for less than 24 hours. Journalists went hunting and tracked down several ‘controversial’ comments made in sermons at Thorburn’s local church some 10 years ago before Thorburn had joined. As newspaper columns appeared, Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews came out and publicly attacked Thorburn’s church,

“those views are absolutely appalling.”

“I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry, is just wrong.

“Those sort of attitudes are simply wrong and to dress that up as anything other than bigotry is just obviously false.”

Within hours Andrew Thorburn was given an ultimatum by the Essendon board, choose the club or his church. Thorburn chose his church. 

In a statement, Thorburn explained,

“Today it became 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. I was being required to compromise beyond a level that my conscience allowed. People should be able to hold different views on complex personal and moral matters, and be able to live and work together, even with those differences, and always with respect. Behaviour is the key. This is all an important part of a tolerant and diverse society…

…Despite my own leadership record, within hours of my appointment being announced, the media and leaders of our community had spoken. They made it clear that my Christian faith and my association with a Church are unacceptable in our culture if you wish to hold a leadership position in society.

This grieves me greatly – though not just for myself, but for our society overall. I believe we are poorer for the loss of our great freedoms of thought, conscience and belief that made for a truly diverse, just and respectful community.”

I’m not here to comment on any potential legal action, for such things are beyond my expertise. As this story will fire up again over the coming days, it is worth highlighting once more the extraordinary nature of the decision made by Essendon Football Club and the interference by Victoria’s Premier. 

I was speaking with a member of the Victorian Government recently. He was quite open and adamant in his support of Essendon’s stance against Andrew Thorburn. One on the hand, he acknowledged that it’s against the law to discriminate against a person’s faith, but in the same breath, he insisted Thorburn shouldn’t lead Essendon given his connection with a Melbourne church. Not only that, this MP told me that any suggestion people of faith could lose their job because of their beliefs, is nothing more than ‘scaremongering’. Given that we were literally talking about a live example, I don’t think he was aware of the irony filling his words. Not only that, what a cold response to thousands of Victorians who now feel vulnerable in the workplace.

As I was thinking about the conversation afterwards, the issue is one of semantics or rather, it’s a game of bluff. He sees the issue through the lens of ‘values’, rather than religion.

He could say (correctly so) that it’s against the law to discriminate against someone in the workplace on the basis of their religion and yet he also believes it’s legitimate to force someone out of their job if their values don’t align (Ie their religious values). In other words, we don’t live in a society where there is a neat division between religion and secular, or between private and public. Everything is religious. Every value and action, every job and interest, is shaped by underlying commitments and views of the world, and these inevitably take on a religious flavour. It’s not as though some sexual ethics belong to a neutral space while religious views are found elsewhere. All values are religious in nature.

Victoria is like Ancient Rome where there is a god for everything. We’ve dispensed with the names; there’s no praying to Juno, Diana and Venus. We simply sacrifice to and live for sexual freedom, power, wealth, or whatever is our ultimate aim. Hence, when a religious view clashes with an assumed (or stated) value, the value wins out as though it’s morally omniscient. That is why football, like cricket and rugby league, is no longer about playing the game. Sport is attached to a set of dogmas, and sponsors often serve as the priests, making compliance certain, while the Board acts as bishop.  Of course, an AFL Club isn’t a church or a Christian school where particular religious views are necessary.  Having the right kind of religious view shouldn’t be a prerequisite for senior management in the ‘secular’ business or sporting world, but as the Andrew Thorburn case demonstrates, such distinctions no longer apply.

Values is simply a disguised way of talking about a person’s deep beliefs and practices. Values aren’t distinct from religion; values are always an expression of religious convictions, whether we attribute a god to them or not. The situation in Victoria, as our Premier has expressed, is that if a Christian’s ‘values’ don’t align with a place of employment, they may well find themselves receiving similar treatment to Andrew Thorburn. They may protest, as did my politician friend, ‘it’s values, not religion’, but such smoke and mirrors don’t fool anyone. 

Essendon’s President David Barham also attempted to play this game of dodgeball. When announcing Thorburn’s resignation, he tried to blur the lines, 

“I also want to stress that this is not about vilifying anyone for their personal religious beliefs, but about 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 for our staff, our players, our members, our fans, our partners and the wider community.”  

Political theologian, Jonathan Leeman, is right, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battleground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour.”

That is the world we inhabit. This is the air we breathe. It may take a little time for HR departments to catch up with the reality of what their guidelines and directives signify, but we no longer have to speculate or hypothesize: we have one very public case in point glaring at us.

Before I finish up, I noticed that there are a few details in The Age reporting that are incorrect: 

First, City on a Hill is not a ‘small’ church. It is probably the largest Anglican Church in Melbourne, and one of the largest Anglican Churches in Australia.

Second, it is not a ‘conservative church’ as opposed to normal or standard. City on a Hill adheres to the same beliefs and practices that are typical of Christian Churches across Australia and the world. This Church sits comfortably within the same orthodox Christianity that has existed and flourished for 2,000 years.

Third, there is no homophobic material on their website. What one finds, as with other Christian Churches, is the Jesus driven belief that sex is a great God given gift reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. And let’s not forget, that Australian law reflected a classical view of marriage until 5 minutes ago. There is nothing phobic when Jesus called out sexual transgression. He did so because people matter and ignoring God’s design is a perilous trip. The extent to which Jesus loved was crucifixion. Jesus didn’t bleed hatred on the cross, but love and mercy toward the same people transgress God’s good ways.

One may not like or agree with Christianity but throwing around language like phobic is lazy and untrue. Churches follow Jesus’ example, by loving and welcoming everyone who comes along. We don’t have to agree with every word, action, and value in order to love and welcome another. If that ethic was true, then Jesus is the world’s worst social heretic! Thank God,  that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)


*all the major newspaper were reporting the story by the end of the evening

“Businesses can’t afford to be tarnished” by Christians, writes Business Columnist

Business columnist for The Age, Elizabeth Knight, writes that there is an irreconcilable difference between business and Christianity, which means businesses and even AFL Clubs are right to exclude people on the basis of religious beliefs.

She says,

“Business doesn’t mix with religion in the same way it doesn’t mix with pleasure. Some would argue that AFL is a religion among its legion of fans, but first and foremost it’s a business. Andrew Thorburn and Essendon’s management that stupidly appointed him as the chief executive should have understood this.”

“A decade or two ago, corporations and their stakeholders may have tolerated Thorburn’s association with a church with strong views on the homosexuality and abortion. But not today.

Whether Thorburn personally holds those extreme opinions is irrelevant, Essendon is a valuable and highly recognised brand, and it cannot afford to be tarnished by any proximity to views that are deemed offensive by a big chunk of its fan base and the broader community.”

Victorian Christians are understandably shaken this week, given Premier Daniel Andrews public attack on Andrew Thorburn which added pressure on Essendon’s board to see him out the door after less than 24 hours in the role. And now we have a business columnist for one of the country’s major newspapers, justifying businesses no longer employing people of faith. 

We should note that it is illegal for the workplace to discriminate against job applicants and employees on the basis of their religious beliefs, but here we are with a business columnist pretty much saying that’s how it needs to be.

Let’s not play the hypocrites game that is being kicked around this week: ‘it’s not about personal religious beliefs’. Pretty much everyone who has said this has also added in the same breath, ‘he had to go because of his views and association with that church’.

Elizabeth Knight doesn’t even feel the need to hide the religious vilification that is spilling out this week. Those standing against Thorburn feel as though the crowd is behind them and cheering on them as though they’re at the Colosseum. 

A word to readers who haven’t yet lost their sense of decency and the belief in the good old-fashioned sense of tolerance. When Knight says that businesses can’t afford to be ‘tainted’ by association with churches like City on a Hill, let’s be perfectly clear about what this means.  City on a Hill is a normal, typical, mainstream Christian Church that teaches, believes, and practices the historic faith. They are no more controversial than Jesus and the Apostles and every faithful Christian Church since. 

It is true, that there are a few ‘Christian’ voices speaking in support of Essendon. Let the reader note: those folk are the very same ones who’ve given up the Bible and the Gospel and instead bought the theology from the same book as the Essendon Football Club. They tend to be the same voices who supported Daniel Andrew’s conversion laws to ban Christians from speaking and convincing to individuals of the Christian view of human sexuality. Even praying with people can result in a criminal conviction! Unsurprisingly,  their churches are declining into obscurity whereas traditional churches are far more likely to see growth. That’s not hubris, it’s the way it works.  

My bigger point here, one that I’ve made already this week and one that we’ve been warned about for years now by Christian leaders including Stephen Mcalpine, is that the workplace is not a secure or safe place for Christians (nor indeed for Muslims and Jews). Many Christians were already nervous at work, even fearful, because of the pressures to celebrate all manner of “diversity” events. Admitting you’re a Christian is like telling people you have COVID and you’re about to cough all over them! If Essendon can find a way to remove a high profile Christian man, of course, others can do so, and indeed it’s been going on for some time now. 

Andrew Thorburn was right when he said, 

… today it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square.

Elizabeth Knight is nodding her head, 

“Running Essendon was a job that Thorburn could have managed even as a side hustle. But it’s hard to see where he will get his next gig, even after the current controversy dies down.”

Christian, be clear about your convictions and don’t let this temporary and passing age cause you to stumble or fall short. 

Christian, be wise in how you conduct yourself at work and on social media.

Christian, show kindness even toward those who oppose you.

Christian, talk to your pastors and church and shore up ways we can support and encourage each other

Christian, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2)

Victoria and the Gradual Reversal of Constantine

Premier Daniel Andrews’ Pandemic Management Bill, is one hot potato. The Bill is currently being debated in the Victorian Parliament and it is drawing much attention in the media and also among the legal fraternity

The President of the Victorian Bar, Christopher Blanden, QC, says of these new powers,

“Stasi police would have been more than happy with the range of powers if they were given it…It’s extraordinary.”

Such authoritarian tendencies have been the hallmark of this Premiership. I’m not here to speak about this contentious Bill. And please note, what I have to say in this article should not be read as a politically partisan presentation, for that is not my agenda. When a Government accomplishes good, I am thankful, no matter who is in power. Without taking away from any good that this Government has achieved in recent years, it is evident that it is drawn by draconian impulses. No Government in Australia in contemporary history has introduced as many policies targeting religious freedom as has this Victorian Government. I say this as someone who lives in Victoria and is watching religious liberties slowly eroding through a combination of policy and power. 

Most recently, in February this year, the Government introduced and adopted the  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.  While Churches agreed with aspects of the Bill, the Government took the unnecessary approach (breaking with jurisdictions around the world) to define conversion practices as broad as possible, such that normal Christian activities are now prohibited. The Act makes it illegal for Christians (and others) to pray with or speak with another person about sexuality and gender with the aim of persuading them according to Christian beliefs. The Government believes that these activities are so heinous that they have attached a prison sentence of up to 10 years for some offences (this law comes into effect February 2022). 

While almost all attention this week is on the new powers being given to the Premier through the Pandemic Management Bill, another Bill has been tabled this week and it deserves attention, The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. It will be debated in Parliament in 2 weeks time.


The proposed amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act are directly aimed at further reducing religious freedoms in Victoria,

The Premier says of the Bill, 

“Religious organisations and schools will only be able to make employment decisions based on an employee’s religious beliefs where these are inherent to the job. Religious bodies and schools will still be able to practice their faith, teach their beliefs and set the religious ethos within their organisation.”

The Premier’s second statement is denuded by the first. By introducing an inherent requirement test for jobs in religious organisations, the Government is self-determining the nature of religious work and removing from these organisations their freedom to make employment decisions for the benefit of their school, church, or charity. 

The Bill not only impacts the ability of religious organisations (and faith-based schools) to employ persons according to their established religious convictions. Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, explains,

“The Victorian bill would also mean no faith-based organisations could discriminate when delivering government-funded services such as counselling or homelessness support, or hiring out community facilities”.

Should the State dictate to religious organisations what constitutes religious work and what is not? Do we really want the State defining the theological beliefs and requirements of faith-based organisations? Is a gardener or an office administrator not doing specifically Christian work because they are not teaching Scripture? The Government is creating a false dichotomy that does not exist in the Christian faith, nor in many other religions. Every role is an expression of commitment to God and is a valuable part of the whole that serves a common purpose.

The Government is also mistaken in assuming that because a role does not have a direct theological or spiritual teaching component, it is therefore irrelevant whether the employee agrees with the organisation’s ethos, beliefs, and vision. This is purely illogical. Why would any organisation or company employ someone who does not support the basic values and vision of that association?

One month prior to the Bill being tabled in Parliament, the Attorney-General indicated that the new parameters maybe even further expanded, 

“We could be convinced to extend it, we just haven’t consulted on that particular element of reform. I certainly wouldn’t have a closed mind to revisiting that down the track”.

A similar comment was made about the Conversion or Suppression Practices Act by the then Attorney-General, Jill Hennessy. Hennessy told Parliament that conduct “such as sermons…may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

In other words, as extraordinary as these amendments are, the Government is already indicating that further religious restrictions may be introduced in the future.

In 2016, a similar amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act was narrowly defeated, however, this latest attempt is likely to pass. 

Today not only marks the release of this Bill in Victoria’s Parliament, it also coincides with another day from history. On October 28th 312AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine won a famous victory. This pagan ruler attributed his triumph to what had been up until that moment an illegal religion: Christianity. Soon after, Christianity was legalised and the formal oppression of Christians came to an end in the Roman Empire.


Christianity and the State have not always had an easy relationship, whether it was Ancient Rome, Tudor England or China’s Sinicization. In Australia, for more than a century our society achieved a healthy dynamic between Church and State. The Church does not control the State and the State doesn’t dictate religious beliefs and practices. This division doesn’t mean that religious ideas can never influence public policy.  After all, politics is never free from worldview, ideology, and theology. Indeed, our appreciation of the secular state has its roots in the teaching of Jesus Christ.

One day when Jesus was confronted by a group of political and religious pundits, he responded with what has become a vital principle for a healthy society, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australian Constitution doesn’t advocate for secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather Government is protected from the control of any single religious organisation.

It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy in Australia is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

It took almost 300 years for Christianity to be no longer deemed dangerous and criminal. In the space of 5 years, basic Christian ideas have been maligned and even made illegal in my State of Victoria. It’s one thing to disagree with Christian teaching, but such Governmental interference is wrong and needless. Without diminishing this overreach, I don’t want to overstate the case either. It’s not as though the future of Christianity depends upon Governmental permission. Far from it! Christianity often grows where the State opposes Churches. The opposition forces Christians to consider who we truly worship, love and follow. When Christians attribute too much to Government, we can weaken the Gospel and lose sight of the centrality of the Church. We are not theocrats! Government intrusion does however make following Jesus Christ more difficult and costly.

At a time where many nations are turning the screw on religious freedoms, from China to Iran and to Russia, why would we want to join this number? The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 achieves less for inclusion and instead gives the State greater control over what religious organisations can do in line with their religion. This legislation contradicts healthy pluralism, and it denies the very foundations upon which our secular society is built. 


This article is an update on comments I made about the proposed Equal Opportunity Amendments last month

Associate Professor Neil Foster provides a legal analysis of the Bill here

Victoria’s Conversion Practices Act is a genuine assault on religious freedom

I just got off the phone with a friend and fellow baptist pastor from Melbourne. He has resigned himself to the likelihood that he will face imprisonment over the next few years. This isn’t because he’s done anything wrong or immoral. He’s a faithful follower of Jesus and lovingly serves a local church. He shared how he has been made to feel that he is a criminal. Again, this is not because he is behaving in any egregious manner. It is because he is a faithful follower of Jesus and a loving pastor that he is expects to face jail time.

My friend had just attended an information session for baptist pastors regarding Victoria’s new conversion practices laws. I attended the same forum but on a different day. 

The Government representatives provided a thorough briefing on the intent and details of The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act. No assurance was given that the laws are only targeting extreme practices. Instead, the Government representatives made it clear that numerous Christian beliefs and practices are now on the wrong side of the law.

I won’t repeat everything that was said in the forum, nor will I cover all the ground that I’ve written about previously and that others have well documented.  The aim here is to remind Victorians of the serious threats posed by The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act. The Bill was adopted by the Victorian Parliament in February this year,  and it comes into effect  February 2022. 

At the moment, churches are understandably focused on issues relating to COVID-19 and what church may look like once we can return in November. At the same time, this Act looms large and will have real consequences for faithful Christians and also for Victorians who seek solace and new identity in Jesus Christ. 

Government Doctrine

The forum speakers were at pains to say that their role was to explain the law and not enter discussions about religious doctrines. However, their commentary was interspersed with judgements on various Christian beliefs and practices.  One Government official referred to the Christian view of sexuality as ‘insidious’. The law itself  is designed to stop certain beliefs and practices inherent to the Christian faith.  Indeed, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act is a religious manifesto wrapped in the guise of politics and law. Lest we were left in any doubt, the government presenters offered ‘Christian’ resources for us to read. None of the sources reflect Christian  views, but the teachings of LGBT activist groups. 

For example, we were informed that no person’s sexuality or gender identity is broken or sinful, and to suggest so contravenes the intent of the new laws. While this may be a popular view in our cultural moment, it is logically incoherent and experientially false. 

We were told that,

“It’s deceptive to say there’s a problem when there isn’t one.”

And

“It wrong to suggest that “you cannot have faith unless you change”.

However, by definition Christianity is a conversion religion. God requires us to repent of sin and to turn to him for forgiveness, new life, and reconciliation. There is no Christian without change. People are persuaded by the message of Jesus Christ and are changed by it. I am not suggesting that a person’s sexual orientation changes, nor do we minister for that goal. Contrary to the views presented at the forum which repeatedly stated that people cannot change, the fact is,  some people do find their sexual orientation change, while many do not. What does change however is an individual’s desire to live in conformity with God’s righteousness. It is normal for people to share this newly found desire in Christ and to seek counsel and prayer to live in light of the beliefs that they are now persuaded to be good and right.

We were informed by a lawyer representing the Government that, 

“We are to affirm peoples sexual orientation and preferences and ‘the love of God’ in that!”

The love of God as described by God in the Bible is given to people not on account of moral aptitude and adherence to his laws. The beautiful account of God in the person of Jesus Christ is that God loves ‘sinners’. It is not a love that condones human sexual behaviour and preferences, but a love that is offered despite our behaviour and desires. To affirm certain preferences is not ‘the love of God’, that is a betrayal of his love, and it is beyond the scope of a government lawyer to suggest so.

The following questions were asked during the forum of the panel:

Christians believe that sexual practices should only take place within marriage between a man and a woman. This belief comes from the Bible, affirmed by Jesus, and has been the norm for thousands of years. 

Say, for example, someone approaches a Christian and shares that they are same sex attracted. They ask for prayer because they don’t want to live out those desires but instead live according to Christian principles. I am acting unlawfully by praying this with/for them?

If the same person also asks me for assistance on how to live according to Christian beliefs and so refrain from sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage, am I acting unlawfully?

The answer in both cases is, yes, this would be a breach of the law.

Here’s another example, a home group may conduct a Bible study on Romans chapter 1. However, if during the study someone shares that they are homosexual, the study cannot continue, because doing so may be interpreted as an attempt to change or suppress the individual’s sexual orientation. 

There is one point where confusion remains; it relates to church positions (whether staff, volunteer, or membership). While a church can appoint persons in line with expressed doctrinal values, it seems to be the case that once a person reveals their sexual orientation or gender identity, you cannot remove them from their role. This will have real repercussions for issues of employment, freedom of association, and the Christian practice of church discipline.

To be clear, it is not only religious leaders who are subject to the Act, everyone Victorian is subject to these laws.

Government Overreach

Since governmental discussions on conversion practices started 4-5 years ago, the direction was pretty clear, and today’s forum has reinforced this simple fact: in Victoria only one view of humanity is permitted, and the Christian view is not it.

No doubt, some Victorians will be very pleased with this news. However, for all the pop-talk about the separation of church and state, and of government commissions not getting involved in church doctrine, this law is all about doctrine and forcing a hardline (and at times anti-scientific) humanistic view onto religion.  As another pastor expressed to me, for a law that’s designed to ban ‘conversion’, he feels that he is being forcibly converted away from Christianity and into some new fangled civil religion.

It is extraordinary for a government to assume such authority and tell its citizens how to pray and who to pray for. It is beyond reason and fairness that a government should threaten religious people for loving others as Christ has loved us. To wield the law in order to bully churches into changing their beliefs is beyond the pale.

Through reading and hearing stories I am aware that a few religious groups have taught and practiced things that are wrong and harmful. I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with every element of the Act. I’ve been on the record since I first heard about ‘conversion practices’ and publicly repudiated such activities. However, this law goes well beyond banning a few practices that belonged on the fringes of a small number of religious organisations. It’s like the Government noticed an ingrown toenail on the left foot and their answer is to cut off the entire leg, and then threaten to cut off other leg should should we offer any resistance! Let me repeat, this law makes it illegal to speak with someone and pray with someone about human sexuality in line with the Christian faith. Worse still, it threatens to silence the most precious good news the world can ever know.

The Bible is clear and good

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1Corinthians 6:9-11)

Becoming a Christian doesn’t remove every issue or struggle, but it does give us a new standing and status before God, and by his Spirit he gives us a new set of desires and purpose. I am not saying that a person’s sexual orientation will change. I don’t think the aim is to change a person’s orientation, nor have I ever suggested so. The Christian goal is to persuade people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to encourage believers to live godly lives that reflect God’s good purposes as revealed in the Bible.

Again, the Bible is clear. You may not agree with it, but that’s part of living in a healthy and pluralistic society. People share and exchange ideas, and people do their best to love and care, and people can choose to engage or not. When the Government deems it necessary to clamp down on historic mainstream Christianity, all Victorians needs to be aware and consider what is becoming of our society. 

What can Churches do? Write a letter to their local MP expressing concerns. Speak with your organisational/denominational leaders and them to provide adequate protections and advice for churches. Don’t give up on the goodness of the Gospel. 

Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration. An Evangelical Response.

This post is co-published with David Ould.

Over the past week a letter has been promoted and circulated around many churches and religious organisations. The Ezekiel Declaration (“the Declaration”) is addressed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and outlines concerns over a potential “vaccine passport” that would be required for church attendance. The letter has now received 2000+ signatures of religious leaders from across Australia, and for that reason alone it is gaining much attention receiving quite a splash. For every signatory there are certainly many more Christian leaders who have not signed their names. Still, 2000+ names and the organisations that they represent is a significant number.

In some respects there are a number of clear core statements in the Declaration that we (David Ould and Murray Campbell) would want to support. We strongly agree that there is a serious question to be asked about “vaccine passports”, particularly when they impact upon church attendance. We are also in robust agreement with the authors of the Declaration that “conscience should never be coerced”.  

Nevertheless, we have declined from adding our names and support to this manifesto. While we share some of the concerns raised in the Ezekiel Declaration, we are unable in good conscience to align ourselves with other aspects and the overall tone and content. 

Our purpose here is to explain the reasons why we have not signed the Ezekiel Declaration and to also caution others from doing so. While we respect how some religious leaders have and will wish to affirm this document and continue to respect those leaders as individuals, we encourage people to think through the issues that we raise here before adding their endorsement to what we consider to be a confused and ultimately unhelpful document.


First, the tone of the letter is combative rather than cooperative.

Both the title and subtitle suggests a posture of hubris and even spiritual smugness: “The Ezekiel Declaration” and  “Watchmen, it’s time to speak”.

Really? Are the authors claiming a prophetic word or preaching Divine judgment upon those who are drafting COVID policies?  This level of rhetoric continues throughout the letter. For example, the authors refer to “medical apartheid” and “the dangerous precipice of a therapeutic totalitarianism”. This seems to be inflammatory language that does not accurately represent the current situation.

Straight away the letter therefore signals an ‘us versus them’ position; we the churches against a bullish and autocratic Government. At this point in time in Australia the situation is more akin to Daniel ch.1 than Daniel ch.6. We are appealing for a fair hearing before the Government, not open defiance with our lives being threatened for any dissent. We are seeking to persuade, not calling for civil disobedience.

We understand the issues at stake and we share concerns about any proposed vaccine passport, but from the outset the tone of the letter communicates an angry sermon rather than bridge building.

We will further address the theological implications of this title below but, for now, simply note that the Declaration takes on a combative approach.

We are also concerned that the Declaration is unnecessarily political. We are entirely convinced that there is a place for responsible engagement with political parties (at times working with them and at times challenging them) but a genuine danger in being seen to be overly partisan. The Declaration has already been leveraged by one political party for political purposes and this does nothing to allay fears that the Declaration is first and foremost a political document, and one that comes from a particular political position.


Second, the letter nowhere encourages people to be vaccinated and it fails to affirm the safety and efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines. 

There is a single word that is accepting but not positive ofin favour of vaccinations, and even then it is partnered with a word of dissent,

While some individuals will receive the vaccination with thanks, others may have good and informed reasons for declining. 

The Declaration does not define what these ‘good and informed reasons’ are. It then proceeds to misuse the words of the Federal Health Minister in February 2021 in support of refraining from being vaccinated. 

One such reason [for declining vaccination] is highlighted in the statement of the health minister Greg Hunt: 

“The world is engaged in the largest clinical trial, the largest global vaccination trial ever, and we will have enormous amounts of data.”

When we read the linked transcript of the interview we see the Minister endorsing the vaccination process, not casting aspersions upon it. He states, 

One of the things that is absolutely fundamental to confidence is the belief in safety. And the essence of safety is a full and thorough assessment…that’s ultimately about making sure we have the maximum take-up in Australia, and above all else, safety, safety, safety. That’s our duty. But it also leads to confidence and take-up.

Hunt’s argument is not that the vaccine is unsafe. On the contrary, he is stating that the approval process for the vaccine is there to provide confidence in it; confidence in the face of the uncertainty that some feel – the same uncertainty that the Declaration promotes.

We see a similar failure to handle sources responsibly in the reference to a CDC study when discussing the efficacy of vaccines. The Declaration states, having referenced the study, “it is evident that vaccines do not prevent infection”. This is, at best, misguided language. Nobody claims that the vaccines prevent infection, simply that they greatly reduce the rate of infection and the negative outcomes from those infections. Further, the report that is linked in the Declaration to support this claim closes with these words,

While numerous studies have shown that the vaccines don’t work as well against the delta variant as they did against other strains, health officials say they are still highly effective, especially in protecting against severe illness and death. Roughly 97% of new hospitalizations and 99.5% of deaths in the U.S. are among unvaccinated individuals, U.S. health officials repeated this week.

The CDC also said the data has limitations. The agency noted that as population-level vaccination coverage increases, vaccinated persons are likely to represent a larger proportion of Covid cases. Additionally, asymptomatic breakthrough infections might be underrepresented because of detection bias, the agency said.

The CDC also said the report is “insufficient” to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the authorized vaccines against Covid, including the delta variant, during this outbreak.

In recent months, data coming from overseas and now locally is demonstrating the substantial effectiveness of these vaccines in lowering the risk of people being seriously ill and dying with COVID-19, a benefit that far outweighs the very small recorded risk of vaccine side-effects.

Christian leaders have an obligation to quote people in context and to represent their position with fairness. Christian leaders also have a duty of care to listen to experts,  convey accurate information, and to refer people to their local GP, rather than publicly undermine health advice. We have documented how at two critical points in its argument the Declaration does not do this.

We appreciate how some Australians are hesitant to take the vaccine at this point in time and are sympathetic towards them. Our intention isn’t to ‘force’ the conscience. We also understand and affirm that there are valid medical reasons why a limited number of Australians cannot use these vaccines. We also understand that as time progresses our understanding of COVID-19 and the best ways to fight against it will improve and at times perhaps change tack. Our concern here is how the Ezekiel Declaration offers no encouragement and no positive information about COVID-19 vaccines. At best this is disappointing, at worst this is knowingly misleading and may undercut people’s confidence in being vaccinated when it is actually the best decision for most of our population when the relative risks are properly assessed.

Finally, we note that it is now well-established that widespread vaccination is the single greatest accelerator for achieving an opening up of our communities and a more “normal” life, the very thing that the Declaration strives for.


Third, the arguments are a kaleidoscope of confusion, conflation, and misrepresentations. 

We have already noted above some serious errors in the way the Declaration handles other material. More generally it seems to us that there is an unhelpful and unclear mixture of different arguments being made. Had the Declaration not contained much of this it would be more useful. Instead the authors have chosen to roll in additional arguments that do little to support their case, especially when (as we have shown) their arguments are based on poor use of external material.

One more example is helpful.

The authors spend much time addressing the issue of mental health. While this is pertinent to discussions surrounding the pandemic, including ongoing lockdowns, it isn’t directly relevant to the question of mandatory vaccine passports for churches. Our hearts ache for those who are overwhelmed and exhausted mentally and emotionally. As pastors we tend to congregation members who are suffering and struggling because of the pandemic. The growing strain is palpable and we too are concerned at the emotional, social, economic, and spiritual toll this is taking on millions of lives. We are pleased to see that politicians, doctors and the media are beginning to address these issues with increasing urgency. These factors, however, are separate from the question of vaccine passports and whether the government should introduce them and even mandate them for public worship services. To conflate them as the Declaration does is to confuse the argument.

The Declaration presents itself as a call against mandated vaccination for attendance at worship service. In reality it also attempts to argue against lockdowns and repeats discredited anti-vaccination arguments and does so with questionable use of source. By rolling in these two extra divisive issues in the manner that it does it presents a far less cohesive argument, let alone fails to garner comprehensive support amongst a wider Christian cohort.


Fourth, the list of signatories raises some concerns in a number of ways. We are uncomfortable signing our names to an alliance of ‘Christian leaders’ where the list includes members of a non-Christian sect and numerous ‘churches’ and other organisations that are considered fringe if not heterodox any other day of the week.

One notable example is the endorsement of Reignite Democracy Australia, an anti-masking anti-lockdown and anti-vax group whose founder was recently charged with incitement following on from illegal anti-lockdown demonstrations.

In addition we have been personally contacted by those who tell us their names have appeared as signatories on the Declaration without their action or consent. We have also had correspondence with those whose professional background includes the investigation of data integrity and they have raised concerns with some elements of the data as it is presented. None of this is to suggest in any way that the writers and promoters of the Declaration have deliberately falsified the signatories, yet there remain concerns about how some of the signatories have been recorded.


Fifth, instead of offering clear Gospel hope to our country, this letter creates suspicion and suggests that Christians are more interested in their own freedom rather than the common good.

At a time when Australia desperately needs to hear and see the beauty of God’s good news, this letter fails to deliver. Despite the closing language affirming the gospel, the message given is not one filled with grace and hope, but rather one of frustration, unbelief, and defiance which obscures and even contradicts the final gospel call. 

Gospel and Biblical fidelity will always be a concern with any declaration made by Christian leaders but particularly one styling itself after the “watchman” of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 33 we learn what the watchman’s role is:

Ezek. 33:1-6   The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, 3 and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, 4 then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. 5 Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’

EZEKIEL 33:1-6

In the context of the writing of Ezekiel (the impending judgment of Judah under God’s hand by the means of Babylon) the watchman’s role is clear; he calls the people to repentance for their sin in the face of judgment (a judgement signalled as imminent by the blowing of a trumpet). In other words, it is the role of any gospel minister to warn of the coming judgement and urge people to find their refuge in Christ. This document does not do that. By using the title of “Ezekiel Declaration” it confuses that great eternal moment of decision with a lesser, albeit significant, matter before the churches. It frames the question of vaccine mandates in the churches (and more general questions around vaccination and lockdowns) as on a scale with the Babylonian invasion and destruction of God’s people. The immediate remedy it suggests is not the gospel of Jesus. The Declaration communicates a defiance of God-ordained authority rather than trusting submission of the Lord as we engage with a difficult moment in our common life. By using the language of the “watchman” it also labels those who do not agree as failed watchmen who have neglected their solemn duties as stewards of the gospel. We are firmly convinced there is a much higher threshold for this charge of abandoning the gospel than disagreement over the matters raised in the Declaration. It is deeply divisive.

Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration

There is a genuine issue relating to vaccine passports, both in general and specifically when tied to church attendance. We will be extremely concerned if Governments decide that religious organisations must mandate vaccination for attendees and participants in public worship services and other religious meetings. There may yet be a need to respectfully make our case and even courageously refuse to place a limit on who may gather together with the people of God. But we are not at the moment yet, nor has any such potential restriction even been announced. Our concern is that the Ezekiel Declaration neither provides a productive pattern by which opposition should happen if required nor increases the opportunity for productive engagement with Governments before then.

Finally a personal word. The two authors have come to publish this position with some hesitancy. We are both known, perhaps even notorious, for standing for gospel purity within our own denominations. That has sometimes come at personal cost. Nor have we been shy when it comes to public engagement with the authorities, be they media, governmental or other. Where necessary we have taken the opportunity to speak of Jesus in the public sphere especially when his word is not well-received. We respectfully do not believe that the charge of “selling out” or cowardice can be levelled against us. We are also acutely aware that many of those that we are effectively criticising here are our natural allies in many of these struggles, not to mention those that we are at times more comfortable with when it comes to political expression. One of us has spoken on your platforms and been featured in your websites. We have spoken plainly about “culture wars” and the like and will continue to do so. We are fellow evangelicals.

Despite this we felt the need to write. We ask that the above be received as it was intended, “wounds from a friend that can be trusted” (Prov. 27:6). We long for gospel unity with all our brethren and offer this letter in that spirit.

To the rest of our readers we ask you to consider whether adding your endorsement to the “Ezekiel Declaration” is the wisest choice at this moment in time or even if you ought to now ask for it to be removed. We believe that the Ezekiel Declaration is an unhelpful move, unnecessarily political, confused in its argumentation and ultimately divisive at a time when the church should be known for its united loyalty to Jesus and his gospel, expressed in an appropriate engagement with the world.

Ps. Murray Campbell, Lead Pastor Mentone Baptist Church, Melbourne.

Rev. David Ould, Senior Associate Minister St John’s Anglican Cathedral Parramatta.

When Victoria Becomes Babylon

“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: “Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or human being except to you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into the lions’ den?” (Daniel 6)

When the State wants to control prayer

A few short years ago almost everyone would be shocked to learn that praying for a person who asks for prayer would be considered illegal activity and lead to 10 years in prison.

That is the situation facing Victorians.

This is not hyperbole. This isn’t exaggeration. Next week the Victorian Legislative Council will vote on one of the most extraordinary pieces of law ever proposed in our nation’s history.

Imagine an Australia where two people are having a conversation about life issues and they are trying to encourage and persuade one another. The police are called, one person is taken away and charged because they sought to persuade the other with the Bible’s view of sexuality.

As we become more aware that treatment for children with gender dysphoria is often led by ideology and not by best medical practice, the Victorian government is instead deciding to further enforce ideology at the expense of medical professionalism and the rights of parents to love and raise the children. Can you imagine an Australia where children are taken away from mum and dad because they’re convinced that changing their child’s gender at a young age is not wise or healthy.

In a country where there are already thousands of laws that can lead to fines of $100s and even $1000s, people found on the wrong side of Victoria’s new Conversion or Suppression Practices Act may face fines of up to $200,000.

Sadly this isn’t a dystopian fantasy. Unless the Legislative Council wisely sends the Government’s Bill to committee for significant revision and amendment, this will soon become law in my state of Victoria.

The Victorian State Government last year presented a Bill that will dramatically change the relationship between Church and State. The ‘Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020’ aims to outlaw practices that do not fully and without question, affirm the current popular view of sexuality and gender. This includes consensual prayers with individuals and conversations with individuals. Breaking this law may result in up to 10 years imprisonment and finds of up to $200,000. The Bill received majority vote in the Legislative Assembly late 2020, and it will be debated and voted on next week in the Legislative Council.

To be clear, as I and others have said a 1000 times, everyone agrees that in a few fringe groups there used to be dreadful practices used on people who were asking for help. No one takes issue with opposing aversion practice. However, this Bill extends far beyond the banning of these few and archaic practices. The Victorian Government aims to outlaw what are basic, historical, and Biblical Christian views and practices.

Associate Professor Neil Foster is among those in the legal fraternity issuing significant concerns about this Governmental overreach, 

“The scope of this legislation goes well beyond the specific ‘injury’ offences that are created (while these are problematic enough),” comments Neil Foster, Associate Professor in law at the University of Newcastle. “The bill creates a powerful set of bureaucratic mechanisms by which religious groups presenting the classic teachings of their faith may be subject to investigation and ‘re-education’ by human rights officers.

“It arguably makes the presentation of some aspects of Biblical teaching unlawful if the aim of that teaching is to encourage someone to follow that teaching in their own life. Despite the appearance of addressing horrific and oppressive quasi-psychological procedures inflicted on young people, the bill goes well beyond this laudable goal, and will make it unlawful to provide assistance in obeying the Bible to those who explicitly and with full understanding request such help. Enactment of this legislation would be a serious mistake.”

There are legitimate concerns being raised not only by lawyers, but also feminist groups, LGBT people, and religious leaders. Instead of tackling a rare issue with precision, the Government is bring out the flame thrower and setting the entire bush of fire. And then, when reasonable minds challenge the Premier, he unfortunately responds with sledging and accusing fellow Victorians as being bigoted and hateful. Instead of civil conversations on important issues, we face insult and slander. 

Returning to Daniel for a moment (the Bible man not the Premier). In that famed story about the lion’s den we should note that Daniel wasn’t praying to God in front of the royal court. He wasn’t running down mainstream Babylon with placards and praying with a megaphone. He wasn’t pining anyone against the wall and praying without their consent. He was in his own home, praying in accord with his convictions. For Babylon’s cultural police, who didn’t wait 2400 years for the invention of Big Brother, they sent in their spies and informants to catch out those who dare defied the religious orders of the Government. This will soon be Victoria. Churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, and homes will need to begin planning for this kind of eventuality. 

Parents are targeted in this Bill

It is not only religious groups who are being threatened, this Bill impacts health professionals and even parents. 

Assoc Prof Foster details how the Bill poses genuine threats to personal conversations and relationships, 

“I see nothing in the bill to say it might not apply to conversations within a family context or just between friends. In section 9 of my latest blog, I refer to the deliberately obscure ‘example’ that is put into the Family Violence legislation involving a child critiquing a parent for their same-sex attraction. [This is part of the legislative package with the conversion bill] The example is there, I think, to make it clear that –

    • The Family Violence law can be extended to the obviously analogous case of a parent urging a child not to engage in same-sex activity; but also
    • To illustrate the fact that the sort of behaviour caught by the bill can happen between family members! Now the amending provision itself only operates for the FV Act, but as it is part of a “package” of amendments, I think it sends a signal that conversion or suppression practices (CSP) can be carried out by family members.
    • I do say in Section 1 [of the blog] that the relevant exception protecting health practitioners ‘does not apply to counselling or advice given by pastors or fellow congregation members or teachers or parents’.”

“In short, a CSP can be ‘conduct’ (a one-off incident), under section 5 it is not limited to being carried out by any organisational office holder, and under section 9 we see that ‘a person’ contravenes the Act if ‘the person’ carries out a CSP.

“So, yes, the prohibitions will apply to someone who is a family member or a friend.”

Victoria in Danger of losing secular status.

A secular society is no longer secular once it interferes with church and religion, to the staggering extent that this Bill will orchestrate. Instead of the State and Churches working together as partners for the good of society, the State is now assuming the role of Archbishop and laying down dictates as to what religious people may and may not believe teach and practice.

We are witnessing the erosion of the healthy distinction between state and church. The hypocrisy is all the more egregious when we recall how mainstream media and social commentators damned Scott Morrison to hell for offering a prayer during the bushfire crisis last season. But when Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, spoke in Parliament and decried religious ‘bigots’ (that is, those who actually believe the Bible) the Premier was praised.

While we must be concerned about the recent rise of Christian nationalism in some parts of the world, we should also be concerned with the rise of civic religion. The current Victorian Government has made past overtures to take control of religious groups, this latest attempt looks as though it will be successful. Do secular Victorians really want Government dictating religious prayers and conversations? 

A healthy and pluralistic society shouldn’t want to prescribe laws banning prayer or religious conversations on issues like sexuality and gender. But such is the situation now facing Victoria. Those who in 2017 preached that same sex marriage will never lead to religious discrimination have proven to be false prophets. 

Daniel (again, the Bible man not the Victorian politician!) faced this dilemma in Babylon. Would he follow an outrageous law of an authoritarian figure or will he continue to trust and obey the God he loves? Would he pray in line with Governmental directives or will pray in accord with his convictions? Yes, it seems so insanely ridiculous to even pose the question; but that’s Victoria in 2021. Of course, there have been many Governments since Babylon who’ve tried to control the prayers of the people. Does anyone remember Henry VIII, bloody Mary, and James 1? History teaches us that in the long run, it doesn’t bode well for Government or society to tell people of faith how to pray or preach or counsel.

No Victorian is being thrown into a lions den, but years of imprisonment and enormous fines are on the offering for those who hold to their religious convictions and seek to share the good news with others. Parents face having children taken from them. If criminal charges don’t stick, there is a civil tribunal waiting for us. Should a complaint be made, even anonymously, that is enough for Government bureaucrats to kick into gear and have religious people and parents dragged before a tribunal and even forced to attend reeducation courses. 

I am calling on members of Victoria’s Legislative Council to delay vote on this highly contentious Bill, and to receive amendments. 

I commend these sensible amendments that are being proposed by Mark Sneddon, Executive Director, Institute for Civil Society here in Melbourne.

Proposed Amendments to the Bill

  • The Bill should only ban “conversion practices” directed to a child or to a person with impaired capacity, but not to an adult who has consented to the practice.
  • The bill should not ban conduct by family and community members but restrict the ban to  conduct by health services providers
  • The bill should protect conduct by health service providers which in their reasonable professional judgment is clinically appropriate
  • The provisions dealing with change or suppression of gender identity should be removed because they are incoherent and they will push clinicians into an uncritical affirmation approach to gender transition
  • The bill should permit communication of religious beliefs to all people and permit religious counselling, pastoral care and prayer for people over 16 with informed consent and the right to leave
  • VEOHRC’S powers under the bill should be the same as under the equal opportunity act in dealing with discrimination and exclude new compulsory powers and issuing enforcement notices

Government Commissioner Confirms Church Leaders Concerns

A spokesperson for the Victorian Government has made a series of admissions that confirm the concerns religious leaders are expressing over the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.

Eternity newspaper sent questions to the office of the Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities, within Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet. Commissioner, Ro Allen, has responded.

The article was published on the Eternity website two days ago (Dec 17th). Within the hour the Government contacted Eternity and asked for the article to be taken down. This request is quite astonishing and one can imagine media outlets expressing concern over a Government asking media to delete an already published article, especially where the Government representative freely gave written comments on the record. There are a couple of significant changes between the two versions of the interview.

Before I offer comment on Ro Allen’s answers, it is worthwhile reiterating how wide societal concerns over over the Bill.

There is broad and growing concern over the Bill

The LGB alliance have expressed grave concerns with the Bill.

Feminists are speaking against the Bill. University of Melbourne’s Feminist Philosopher, Holly Lawford-Smith, has said,

”The Keira Bell verdict [UK High Court landmark case- see below] establishes that children are unlikely to be competent to consent to puberty blockers, which establishes that an ‘affirmation-only’ approach is the wrong approach where it is likely to involve medicalisation. Yet Victoria is heading in the opposite direction, with a new bill about to criminalise any individual who fails to ‘affirm’ or support a child’s claim about her gender identity.”

Men and women who have detransitioned are voicing grave concerns about how this bill will harm not help Victorians who are wrestling with their gender identity.

Legal experts believe the Bill poses needless and extraordinary infringements on religious freedoms. As one example (among many that can be mentioned),

“In the most aggressive action ever taken by an Australian government to attack freedom of religion, the Labor Government in Victoria proposes to make it a criminal offence, punishable by several years’ imprisonment, for a person to pray with another person about issues they are having concerning their sexual orientation or gender identity. It will not be a defence that the person actually wanted prayer.”

Barney Zwartz wrote earlier in the week that ,

“Most Victorian churches are concerned about the conversion bill”.

The Bill itself clearly denotes that the prohibitions are not limited to the few and awful practices that were once engaged in by a small number of religious groups. The Bill includes a ban on ‘prayer’. The Explanatory memorandum states that conversation with a faith leader can be considered conversion practice and therefore subject to prosecution. 

The Premier and the now Former Attorney General have each made their case. They oppose not only those rare and dreadful conversion practices, but they are pitching to remove the beliefs from Victoria.

“Cruel and bigoted practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will soon be stamped out across Victoria, thanks to new laws introduced to Parliament today.       

The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.”

Attorney-General Jill Hennssey said,

“We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity,” 

“These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria and neither will these abhorrent practices.”

 La Trobe University’s Dr Timothy W. Jones wrote a report for the Government on the topic. Despite claiming churches have nothing to fear about the Bill he then proceeded to tell churches  change their beliefs and instead do what LGBT activists tell them to do. In his report he refers to “insidious development”. By this he is speaking of Christians who hold to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (the very teaching that forms the foundations for our society). 

All those comments should be suffice to convince people that the Government is not limiting its intent to outlawing extreme practices. They are consciously legislating against religious Victorians who hold legitimate practices, even those doctrines that are as ancient and good for society as the Christian Bible. 

Photo by Ric Rodrigues on Pexels.com

Now to offer comment in response to the interview with the Victorian Commissioner.

The question of sermons

Are there any limits on what can be prosecuted? Yes, but these lines are often blurry and as both Jill Hennessy and Ro Allen admit, these boundaries may well expand over time to include even more religious practices.

For example, the one activity the Government is clear on is the sermon. Under the current provisions contained in this Bill preaching a sermon will not be prohibited. However, Jill Hennessy told the Parliament that the Government may later reconsider this activity, “such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

The issue of sermons doesn’t go away.

Eternity asked,

“Will the educational role of the Commission act to discourage the general teaching that the Bible says homosexual sex is wrong?

This statement was made in the original interview

“The proposed law is quite clear in countering any teaching that says that homosexual sex is wrong, so this may well be part of their education”

In other words, a sermon may not lead to charges and 10 years imprisonment, but a sermon may be reported and the preacher compelled to attend a reeducation camp. Victorians should appreciate the authoritarian and Caesar like approach this Government has told religious freedom. If a Christians upholds the Christian view of sexuality and persuades others of this view, you may be forced to attend the Andrews school of ethics and be told that Christianity is bigotry and that queer theory is right. What makes Allen’s admission even more startling are the changes made in the new Government approved version of the interview.

The response becomes,

“If general prayer in c) is reported to the Commission, the Commission would not be required or empowered to do anything as this is not a change or suppression practice. The Commission would decline to consider the report.

There will be a 12-month period before the law starts, in order to allow important implementation work to be completed. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission will lead this and consult widely with Victorians.”

Which version of the answer expresses the Government’s position? The former is a clear threat to Churches, while the latter communicates, ‘we’re not going to tell you what will happen should you preach, teach, or counsel in line with your church’s doctrine. Wait and see!’

There is a further significant revision made in Allen’s answer. Eternity referred to stories of individuals who allege harm at the hands of churches who prayed for them and whose churches disproved of non heterosexual marriage. “These activities may or may not have been targeted at the individual person in each case.” The question was then asked,

“Will there be experiences regarded as harmful by LGBTQ persons not covered by the bill?”

In the original interview Allen answered by saying,

“Under the current law, such practices are not covered. This law will be reviewed in two years. If the advice coming to the government is that these practices do indeed cause harm in the same way, then the government may have to revisit the law.”

In the new version of the interview, Allen takes a step back, offering a response that is more vague.

“This is unclear and may be determined when such a case is raised. If, for example, a religious leader was providing lessons to LGBTIQ people to “pray the gay away”,  it could possibly be captured under this law as inducing a person to try and change their sexual identity or gender identity.”

While the revised answer sounds less threatening, the point remain: this unnecessary law is likely to grow fatter with time. This is a further indication that the current Government has not finished its strategy to, “stamp out across Victoria” any view of sexuality and gender that does not fully embrace (and without questioning it), the current expression of queer theory. 

Allen also reinforces the Bill’s own statement about how the list of prohibited activities are only ‘examples’. It is not an exhaustive list at all.

“These religious practices given as examples are among those known to cause the most harm to people. Other religious practices that will be covered by the law will be any religious practice that is directed at an individual person to try to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As the Explanatory Memorandum goes on to say, the bill “is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.’”

 

Targeting ministry to individuals rather than groups

The Government’s Commissioner notes the Government’s aim is to distinguish between what takes place in a general setting and what occurs with individuals. Sermons are ok (for now) because they are teachings addressed to a group of people. He explains, 

“Some sermons may express beliefs that seem contrary to the aim of this bill, which affirms that people of faith have the right to express their views, but not to force them upon other people. The law becomes triggered when it is aimed at changing or suppressing an individual.”

It is reasonable to ask in response to this comment, for how long will a Government permit ‘sermons’ given that they supposedly “express beliefs that seem contrary to the aim of this bill”?

For now, the issue for churches relates to ministry that focuses on individuals. This includes praying with people, and exhorting people to live in accord with Biblical ethics.

Rev Dr John Dickson said on Eternity’s Facebook page, 

“advising an LGBT person to be celibate for life (because traditional marriage isn’t an option) seems to be described here as an outlawed practice.”

He is correct.

Personal prayer and conversation forms a regular part of clergy ministry. It is also not uncommon for a lay believer to meet with another person for prayer and bible study. These are normal activities. However, should the topic of sex and gender arise, the government may charge individuals with encouraging abstinence and moral godliness. Refraining from sex outside of heterosexual marriage has been normative for the entire history of the church.

The Government is forcing religious Victorians into an impossible position: do we remain faithful to our convictions and continue to love people by sharing our faith, or do we submit to these scandalous demands of a Government? 

Here is a further important scenario that may fall foul of this law. Christians churches require potential members to affirm the doctrinal convictions of the church. For example, Churches regularly require members to refrain from sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman. Members who sin in this way (to use the Bible’s own language) are usually asked to repent and discipline can take place (which may include being asked to refrain from taking Communion or even being removed from membership).  Given that these normal practices relate to individual persons, will the church’s actions be prohibited under this Bill?

The Government has chosen to attack churches rather than work with them

Premier Daniel Andrews last week directed an attack against church in leaders during a speech in the Parliament. 

“Some faith leaders have been critical of these provisions, critical of a law to ban the worst form of bigoted quackery imaginable.

“This is not kindness and love, or the protection of the vulnerable and persecuted. This is not something to be proud of. This is not what I pray for.”

His words are unfortunate. The Premier has dismissed the legitimate concerns that are being expressed and which Allen has now validated. Instead, Mr Andrews implied that teaching and praying for the Christian view of human sexuality is the “worst form of bigoted quakery imaginable?” But surely the Premier was only referring to those awful practices such as aversion therapy? But no faith leader is supporting such a thing. They are they are calling on the Government to amend a Bill so we may continue to practice of faith without the undue intrusion of the State. Allen’s words have given further substance to these concerns.

There are members of the Government who are privately expressing concerns about the Bill’s overreach. I trust they will find their voice and speak with the new Attorney General.

I also understand how some members of the community are praising the Government’s Bill, and that some are already demanding that it be extended to include a greater range of religious activities.  Are not the beliefs that have carried and formed and blessed our societies for 2000 years no longer welcome?

It remains a disappointment that the Government didn’t follow the example of Queensland and write a Bill that focuses on the few, rare, and genuine harmful practices that once existed. Religious leaders could have partnered with the Government to make this Bill work. Instead, the Premier labels us bigots and quacks.

I appreciate how fellow Christians have approached this Bill with grace and gentleness, assuming the Government’s good intentions. Grace and gentleness should exude from us, but there is nothing virtuous about gullibility. Playing nice sometimes slides into naïveté. The Government’s spokesperson has reaffirmed concerns that many have raised over the past month.

Since the times of the Caesars Christians have prayed for Governments, honoured them, and submitted to their authority.  We will continue to do so. There is however a line that Christians will not cross, and this State Government is drawing that line thick in the black ink of law. It is bullying people of faith into either submission or having a criminal record with a stint at a reeducation camp. Does this sound like healthy pluralism? Does this bode well for a free and democratic society? Does this continue centuries of strong partnership between Church and State?

Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox are among the many groups who are voicing legitimate concerns over this Bill. It is time for others to join. At the end of the day these voices may not persuade the Parliament to fix this Bill, but at least we can say that in this day of trouble we stood with Christ, with our churches and for our people.  One day we can look back and know that didn’t throw our congregations to the lions, we instead chose to remain with them. 


A correction. The original Eternity article spelled the Commissioner’s surname as Allan. They have informed me that they were incorrect and it is Allen. I have subsequently changed the spelling.

A Day of Reckoning: Victorian Government pushes to ban Christian practices with threat of 10 years in prison

The day has come in Victoria where Christians and Churches need to decide whether to obey God or the Government. Such a decision should never be forced onto believers but the current Victorian Government insists that it must be so.

There are times when we use hyperbole and exaggerate the significance of words or decisions, but I do not think this is one of those occasions.

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 has been tabled in the Victorian Parliament. This is the most significant threat to religious freedom in Victoria in living memory. The current Government has been slowly removing religious freedoms for a number of years, but nothing quite like this.

Anyone found engaging in ‘change or suppression practices’ may face 10 years imprisonment.

Premier Daniel Andrews

“Cruel and bigoted practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will soon be stamped out across Victoria, thanks to new laws introduced to Parliament today.       

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 will put in place new measures to protect Victorians from the serious damage and trauma caused by conversion practices.

The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.

The laws empower the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) to consider and respond to reports of change or suppression practices from any person, as well as launch investigations where there is evidence of serious or systemic change or suppression practices.”

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill may have wide-reaching ramifications for thousands of religious groups in Victoria, for 100,000s of Victorians, and for the entire State as it turns its back on religious freedom in favour for State-controlled religion. 

Now that the Bill is available to read, what does it mean for Christians and for churches?

The Bill is long and complex. There are important details that need to be addressed which I or others will do so later on. I want to comment here on some of the larger issues.

I want to begin by stressing that if the Government’s intention is to protect vulnerable people from extreme practices that were once employed by a few and marginal religious groups, there is a warrant for conversation.

When the Guardian reported, 

“Religious groups have sought to distance themselves from the older practices of electro-shock treatment, aversion therapy or other extreme methods, while arguing that religious counselling encouraging people to change their sexuality or gender identity should not be banned if a person consented to the treatment.”

I must respond and say, not true. We are not distancing ourselves from these older practices because almost no church ever engaged in them. Until a few years ago I didn’t know that such practices once occurred in a few religious groups. Despite the efforts of the Government and various advocacy groups, this is not and was never widespread among Christians in Victoria. In addition, I note the government has carefully avoided telling the public that this the so-called ‘conversion therapy’ originated not with Christian churches but within secular psychology. Decades ago, some well-meaning people unfortunately adopted the ideas and practices from psychology and added a spiritual twist. 

If the Government is concerned with banning shock therapy and particular counselling methods, pretty much all Christians would find agreement. For those people who have undergone those kinds of experiences, I pray that they will find healing and come to know the God of all comfort. However, these narrow and debunked practices are not the parameters of this Bill, nor the goal of this Bill. Both the Premier and the Attorney General have made it clear,

Premier Daniel Andrews referred to conversion practice as,

 “This bigoted quackery”, 

and 

“The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.”

Attorney-General Jill Hennssey said,

“We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity,” 

“These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria and neither will these abhorrent practices.”

Let us take note, it is not only the alleged activity that Daniel Andrews and Jill Hennessy want to be eradicated from Victoria, it is “these views”. In other words, to think or have ‘these views’ is something that the Victorian Government wants rooted out.

In other words,  the Government is not only targeting those rare, few and extreme practices (that frankly don’t happen anymore), the government is aiming its intention at the beliefs and the thoughts of 100,000s of Victorians. Is it the role of government to police our minds and to decide what theology can and cannot be believed? Since when did God give them jurisdiction over the conscience?

Churches are left with little protection

The Bill contains no explicit protection of the rights of religious people to believe and teach their views. At one point it refers to the Charter of Human Rights but it fails to offer any specific protection to religious people and religious organisations. With a note of irony that can’t be missed, the Bill’s explanatory memo references to “freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief”, in the context of constructing an entire Bill aimed at taking those freedoms away.

The Government’s position is of course hypocritical and disingenuous. For example, while they argue sexual orientation is fixed and that persuading anyone of an alternative is morally wrong, the Bill offers protections for those who are in the business of transitioning people into a gender other than their birth sex. In another law that the Government pushed through a year ago, on one’s birth certificate you are free to legally change the gender on your birth certificate every 12 months. When it comes to children who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, they are now encouraged and urged to no longer identify with their biological sex but to assume a new gender identity. The government have acted in this manner despite an increasing consensus in the medical fraternity that this kind of counselling and medical intervention is fraught with danger and is unlikely to resolve the issues facing these children.

What is considered ‘conversion or suppression practice?

In terms of the particulars of this Bill. it is important to understand how terms are defined, in particular, what constitutes ‘conversion or suppression practice’.

5 Meaning of change or suppression practice 

(1) In this Act, a change or suppression practice means a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person’s consent—

(a) on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; and

(b) for the purpose of—

(i) changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or

(ii) inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice includes, but is not limited to the following—

(a) providing a psychiatry or psychotherapy consultation, treatment or therapy, or any other similar consultation, treatment or therapy;

(b) carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism; 

(c) giving a person a referral for the purposes of a change or suppression practice being directed towards the person.

Take note of the following details:

  1. The Bill will ban consensual practices. If a person invites a pastor or person to pray for them in relation to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the pastor or person can be charged according to the Act.
  2. Section 5.3 provides examples of what constitutes ‘practices’.  Prayer is banned. For example, if a person asks for prayer that they would live a godly life and refrain from sexual activity that they believe is inconsistent with follow Jesus Christ, the person praying can be charge according to this Act. 
  3. Section 5.3 specifies that practice is not limited to the examples that are provided. 

Where does this leave preaching and teaching the Bible’s sexual ethic? What of the sermon, the Bible study group, and seminars? 

To be clear, Christianity does not teach that a persons gender or sexual orientation will change. Christianity does however teach and urge Christians to live sexually godly lives which include only having sexual relations within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. The Bible contains many exhortations for believers to not engage in sexual activity outside marriage. Will these formal and informal conversations be permitted under this Bill? At the stage, that is far from certain.

For teaching abstinence or offering pastoral counselling in line with the Bible’s vision of sexuality, and praying with fellow believers that they will be godly in their sexuality, does this fall foul of the Bill?  

This ambiguity needs to be clarified in the Bill. If teaching and sermons and study groups are not subject to this Bill, then it needs to be made explicit so that religious organisations are afforded due protection.

As it stands, there are details that this Bill does not answer and deliberately (or least it seems a conscious decision) leaves open. What if a church runs a seminar on marriage or raising children and we explore the bibles teaching on sexuality?

Where the Bill is silent, we may turn to the Bill’s explanatory memorandum and to the HCC and HRLC reports which the Government used extensively for shaping their position. 

The explanatory note states,

“These examples are illustrative only and do not narrow the definition in subclause (1) which is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including, informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.”

In other words, a conversation is deemed an offence. A chat where a Christian encourages another Christian to follow a Christian ethic could become unlawful.

The Explanatory memo doesn’t hold as much legal weight as the Bill itself. However, I am reliably informed that a Court may refer to the explanatory note.

The Health Complaints Commissioner’s Report for the Government, adds this information,

“Conversion therapy/practices reinforced homosexuality as a form of ‘brokenness’”

And

“Church teachings that homosexuality is sinful;”

Notice the attention given to Church teachings (as opposed to other religions who also identify homosexual practices as sinful). In other words, classical Christian teaching about sexuality is deemed to be harmful. According to the HCC, an exposition of Romans ch.1 or 1 Corinthians ch.6 would fall under the umbrella of harm. If a Church organises a marriage enrichment day where the Bible’s presentation of marriage is affirmed, this event could fall foul of harm. From weddings to Sunday sermons, from Bible study groups to counselling sessions, in contexts where sex outside of heterosexual marriage is spoken of as sinful or broken, the Health Complaints Commissioner identifies all of the above as harmful and therefore the State can justify limiting religious freedom.

The other report which the Government has underscored is from the Human Rights Law Centre.

Under  conversion practice they include,

“pastoral care which includes (or claims to include) ‘counselling’, ‘healing’, claims about ‘curing’, ‘changing’ or ‘repairing’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or claims about improving a person’s mental or physical health, would likely still be classified as a health service, and the above regulations would apply.”

Indeed, the definition is so expansive that it may include sermons, Bible Studies, marriage courses, counselling, and prayer.

The HRLC report also included new forms’ of conversion practice, among them is self-control and abstinence.

“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”

The HRLC and HCC reports are not part of the Bill, but they do form background and reveal the sorts of practices that are being views. The Government has a responsibility to clarify where the HRLC and HCC understandings of ‘practices’ can or will influence interpretation of the Act.

Concluding Remarks for now

Once again, we can all agree that there used to be unhelpful and damaging practices done to fellow Victorians. We oppose them and pray that those individuals who have been harm, may find peace and healing. The Government’s Bill, as it stands, goes well beyond those archaic and now debunked practices. This is an attack on normal and deeply held beliefs and practices among Christians all over the world.

I am less shocked by the Government’s narrative as I am saddened. Pumping children with hormones and cutting off breasts and penises is not harmful, but Christianity is harmful. Praying for Christians to be godly about sex is harmful. Teaching the Bible’s vision for human sexuality and relationships could be defined as harmful. 

Without important revisions and corrections, this Bill will make vulnerable 100,000s of Victorian Christians who are persuaded by the Bible’s vision for human sexuality.  For Christians, this is never about forcing our views on anyone. It is about casting a better vision for the world and human life, and about persuading and loving others as Christ has loved us.

If the Government doesn’t intend to prosecute Christians or Churches for praying or teaching or practicing a Christian view of sexuality, then it is incumbent upon them to clarify their goals and to correct this Bill.

I trust that the Victorian Parliament will see commonsense and introduce significant revisions to this anti-religion Bill. 

To Churches, faith groups, and denominations, I encourage you to write to your local members of Parliament and express your concerns winsomely and clearly.


LGB Group opposes the Bill

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/conversion-therapy-ban-may-backfire-lgb-group/news-story/f065829f62254bfdbdaac91961b9ab20

Associate Prof. Neil Foster begins to unpack the legal issues with the Bill – https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/2020/11/26/victorian-conversion-practices-prohibition-introduced/?fbclid=IwAR1FXurFqxt6SFJojCi5BvSFK_agfYbp8Zn18UyY0E8qa4vcuG2QJ4l8ouA

This legal analysis exposes deep problems with the legislation, including how it works against children and families. No wonder LGB groups and some transgender people are appalled by the proposed Bill – https://freedomforfaith.org.au/library/labor-government-in-victoria-makes-prayer-a-criminal-offence?fbclid=IwAR378h-hypTQLwfVRM0KAoY-WRnhdQ22L2xUaJLgtXldSWSolZlBypYP8pw

Vatican aiding China with Sinicization

China is pursuing its policy of Sinicization, reshaping Christianity into the image of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Australian newspaper is reporting that Beijing is to extend its deal with the Vatican, despite high ranking Catholic officials protesting, including Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen.

“The two-year provisional agreement will expire next month.

Bishop Sorondo, a close friend of Pope Francis, is on record as claiming the ­Chinese state exemplifies Catholic social justice teaching, a claim dismissed as “absurd’’ by Vatican-based US cardinal Raymond Burke.

Renewal of the deal, which has given the Chinese state control over the appointment of bishops in China, would spark outrage across the church and cause deep sadness among persecuted Catholics in China and Hong Kong.

Renewal would come as religious persecutions are being stepped up in China, which is increasingly flexing its military might in the Indo-Pacific region.”

photo-1522460676881-83490b51a873

While the Vatican is refusing to release all the particulars of the arrangement, it is widely believed that it will allow the Vatican to have greater say in appointing future Bishops in China (but not full control). This is contingent upon Pope Francis formally recognising seven Catholics Bishops who have already been appointed by the Chinese Government.

The New York Times reported in 2018,

“The ruling Communist Party sees the compromise with the Vatican as a step toward eliminating the underground churches where Chinese Catholics who refuse to recognize the party’s authority have worshiped for generations. With the pope now recognizing all bishops and clergy members in the official Catholic churches approved and controlled by the party, the underground church may have no reason to exist.

The move is part of a broader push by the government to clamp down on all aspects of society since Xi Jinping took power as the party’s leader in 2012.”

For the most part, in history, Church and State have been duly recognised as separate entities, concerned with different spheres of responsibility, jurisdiction, and authority. That is not to suggest that there is no overlap. The Scriptures themselves testify to this in places such as Romans 13:1-7. Indeed, the Apostle Paul on one occasion appealed to Caesar without any sense of overstepping the line.

At their best and when the dynamics are suitably valued and practised, the State and Church serve society in a healthy partnership, understanding their distinct roles and appreciating the other. It’s not as the State is void of religious content; Christians and non Christians alike, and people of other faiths, are welcomed into Parliament and can contribute ideas that have been formed by their convictions and worldview. We don’t live in an a-theistic state, but a pluralistic culture.

At worst, the State has intruded and sought to control or disrupt churches and even to work for their destruction. And Churches, in a vain attempt to retain some semblance of relevance or to keep their institutions alive, have become complicit with immoral and anti-Christian agendas.  We have seen this happen with Christian denominations capitulating on the marriage issue. This has happened amongst evangelicals in the United States as they conflate the cause of Christ with the Republican Party. Indeed, the Vatican’s deal with Xi Jinping is reminiscent of former days when Rome (and also some Protestant denominations) was found to collaborate with Nazism in the 1930s-40s. The idea was, if you keep our doors open, we’ll give you our support. We’ll betray your cultural heretics and cede some of our independence so long as you let us be.

The Lord of the Church once said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  Apparently, some ecclesiastical minds are of the opinion that one can do both.

When I wrote about this story two years ago, I suggested Daniel ch.3 as an analogy. President Xi Jinping is sounding like King Nebuchadnezzar, while Pope Francis is appearing as one of his astrologers who betrays Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Since then, more fuel has been added to the fire, and this new blast of oxygen from St Peter’s isn’t going to dampen the growing threat posed to Christians and religious minorities in China. It is one thing for the secular citizen to sell their the soul to a dominant regime, but for the overseers of a Church to throw into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace the people under their care, they themselves are in danger of another fire where no angel will tread and save.

Communist China is an evil regime that has little regard for religious freedom, let alone political and social freedoms. The world has evidence of 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, being forced into concentration camps. For decades churches have been closed, destroyed, pastors imprisoned, and families threatened because they profess faith in Christ. Millions of Chinese Christians cannot meet to worship God in public or read the Bible. The threat of discrimination is a constant one. For the Vatican and Pope Francis to make a deal with the Devil is a grave misjudgment.

This is a timely reminder to thank God for the religious freedoms we enjoy in Australia, and not to take them for granted. There are sometimes tensions, but not every disagreement amounts to discrimination against Churches or religion in general. Nonetheless, this should also serve as a warning to Australian Churches and Governments alike.

When this deal with first agreed upon in 2018, I suggested,

“We are a long way from the politico-religious scene of our northern neighbour, and yet it is not irrational to suggest that should some Australian political parties and notable social commentators have their way, we would be aiming toward an Australian Sinicization, conforming Christianity into the likeness of Australian humanistic secularism.”

This threat remains. And no, I am not referring to current Governmental rules for religious organisations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Writing for ABC’s The Conversation last week, Professor Nicholas Aroney spoke of new research that has found that government-based religious discrimination is on the rise around the world. While much of the attention is duly on other countries, he notes that “the threat in Australia is real”.

We are far from the situation found in Communist China, but we do have, for example, a State Government that has previously attempted to interfere with basic religious freedoms and is currently drafting legislation that may soon see parts of the Bible banned, classical teaching on marriage prohibited, and prayers for sexual sanctification outlawed. I am of course referring to the Victorian Government’s plan to introduce legislation in 2020 to ban conversion practices.

We need to guard our own backyard while also speaking up against religious suppression that is taking place across the seas.

Australia is wrestling with Religious Freedom

The fight against the Religious Discrimination Bill is heating up with a submission from some of the nation’s powerful Unions and with a bank telling everyone to love their way or go away.

The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Industry Group have written a letter to Attorney General, Christian Porter, warning the Government about perceived flaws in the Bill.

I am not saying that the Bill is perfect and that improvements cannot be made. I personally wish there was no need for a Religious Discrimination Bill in Australia, but hardline secularists continue to threaten religious freedoms and raise the temperature against religious Australians such that a Bill has become important, if not necessary. 

So what are the Unions’ concerns? According to Dana McCauley, the primary issue relates to “a risk of harm to the staff and customers of Australian businesses”.

“Employers are concerned the provision will conflict with their obligation under workplace laws to provide safe environments free of bullying and harassment, risk damage to their reputations, harm productivity and make it harder to recruit and retain staff.”

The argument goes like this: this Bill will give religious people license to be mean and say horrible things to other workers and customers and employers won’t have the power to stop it. But is this the case?

Associate Professor, Neil Foster, has detailed that “The Bill does not authorise all religiously motived” acts, and second, the Bill does not create rights to new forms of horrible speech, but it does protect freedom of speech that operates against the background of already existing rights.

“The “right” to make offensive remarks, is a right which already exists as part of our long tradition of protecting free speech, even speech which we don’t like and which upsets people. That is why we need a right to free speech- none of us are tempted to censor speech we agree with!”

There has been a tidal wave of pressure to succumb to the new sexual code of conduct, and I can’t but help conclude that the ACTU and AI are just the latest to succumb. To be fair (relying on the SMH’s reporting), they are not against the Bill altogether, but those parts that they believe will undermine the employer.  Part of the issue with this tidal narrative is that religion is seen as a threat to business and as a threat to social cohesion. In reality, it can serve as a constructive partner. It is a little odd that Australian businesses are wanting to squeeze out religion when globally the world is becoming more religious.  As Dr Brian J. Grim (President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation) has observed through his research,  “religious freedom is good for the economy, good for society, and good for business”.

Underneath this wave is a strong current to strip religious Australians of their freedom to hold and speak of their beliefs. This is no mere hypothetical; the proof is in the Israel Folau case, and in many other cases that have not gained attention by the media. Remember, it was not the tone of Folau’s Instagram posts that led to his dismissal (even I took issue with his tone), for as Rugby Australia’s CEO, Raelene Castle, admitted, even quoting the Bible would have been cause for Folau’s sacking. 

There are many workers who speak with me in private, employed across professions and industries, and who have been frightened into silence by their workplace, afraid they will lose their job if they dare mention their faith in Jesus Christ.  To be more accurate, the fictitious Jesus who embraces the new sexual morality is permissible, just not the Jesus who subscribes to the Bible. 

Both the ACTU and AI have an invested interest in this discussion and ought to be heard. I get it, anyone believing the straw man arguments may well express concerns over religious workers causing “workplace bullying, aggression, harassment including sexual harassment, discrimination, or other unreasonable behaviour”.  In reality, such cases are unusual. Is there no room for discussion and disagreement over life’s biggest questions, either in the workplace or on people’s private social media accounts? This rhetoric about harm and bullying too easily becomes political speak, cloaking what is really going on under the guise of justice and human rights. 

In some quarters, bullying is now code for, this Christian doesn’t support gay marriage. Or, that employee doesn’t join in workplace rituals for LGBT celebration days. And, I don’t like the article my colleague shared on his Facebook page and so I’m reporting him to the HR department.

Lovespeech

Let’s look at the ANZ’s new messaging. ANZ has released a document entitled, “Your Guide To Love Speech“.

“During the 2020 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, ANZ is taking a stand against hurtful language and has launched #LoveSpeech – a national campaign to educate Australians on the impact that hurtful language has on the LGBTIQ+ community.”

“By changing hateful messages to give them new meaning, we hope to create awareness, understanding, and unity. That’s what Love Speech is all about.”

I assume the document (with its accompanying posters) are mandatory in ANZ workplaces. I also assume that ANZ board are comfortable for staff to share this messaging outside of work. Indeed, ANZ specifies that this is a “national campaign to educate Australians”.

I am all for ‘love speech’, but what ANZ mean by love is, the unqualified affirmation of the new sexual ethic. And what they consider hate speech includes what are reasoned and deeply held beliefs for millions of Australians. It is quite extraordinary but ANZ feel so confident about their posturing that they can explicitly state that mere expression of a belief in heterosexual only marriage is a form of hate speech.

My question to ANZ is, what will happen to employees who cannot get behind this campaign and who hold a different opinion? What is to become of employees who are discovered expressing a different opinion? What will happen to the employee who either at work or in public voices disagreement with this campaign?

Are we to conclude that affirming gay marriage and transgenderism is an inherent requirement for employment at a bank?

It’s not as though ANZ, Rugby Australia, and some Unions hate religion, they just can’t accept religion that doesn’t fully embrace their virtue signalling.  This is about controlling religion (specifically Christianity). This wave of authoritarian secularism pervades our education systems, now employment, the public square, and may soon pour inside religious institutions and churches. We are fools to think otherwise. The gods of secularism will not tolerate an alternative, even if means dismantling the faith upon which the structures and fibres of our great society were built. Religion is to be controlled, much like during the good old days of Ancient Rome or in today’s Communist China, where Christianity is permitted so long as all the non-communist bits are deleted. This would all sound crazy and like the ravings of religious nut stuck on hyperbolic drive, except that Australia has already begun witnessing this cultural control. 

And that is why the Religious Discrimination Bill matters. The Bill aims to preserve the kinds of freedom Australians have enjoyed for decades. This is about maintaining a healthy pluralism and retaining an essential ingredient of a civilised society.  It is difficult to assess the Union’s letter through the lens of a newspaper article, for the spin may not accurately represent the written concerns; I don’t know. Is there warrant for further consideration of the “Folau clause”? Perhaps so. Of course, we should want the Bill to be as fair and useful as possible.

The broader issue is of course, that the culture has shifted. Increasingly, religious people are being informed that their opinions are not welcome in the public square. It is not acceptable to believe in heterosexual-only marriage. It is only okay to share views that fully conform to the narrow and intolerant sexual agenda that is being preached in most almost every sphere of life in contemporary Australia.  The Federal Government is acting to introduce the religious discrimination Bill for the very reason that religious Aussies are losing their jobs and being squeezed out of schools, because of their religious convictions. 

Whatever the outcome of this religious discrimination bill, I hope and pray Christians will continue to follow the ethic give to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: to honour him and to respect those among whom we work, to be gentle and kind and to give reason for the hope we have and to not shy away from the good news we have come to know and cherish above everything.