5 April 2010


In Australia religious institutions that are subsidised to the tune of billions of dollars of taxpayers money jealously guard their right to select staff, students and other clientele on the basis of religion. They are permitted to do this on the basis of exemptions in legislation which are jokingly termed ‘Equal Opportunity Acts’. They claim ‘religious liberty’ as the basis for withdrawing educational and other services from those who do not fit within their peculiar criteria.

If the Australian High Court judges in the DOGS 1981 case had followed the American Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment – the clause upon which Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is based – such ‘liberties’ taken by sectarian institutions would be outlawed in Australia as well as America. The imposition of religious chaplains as guidance officers in our State Schools would never have been contemplated.

Those who are concerned at the basic human rights being contravened by sectarian institutions in Australia could take heart from the current American situation. In that country those interested in separation of church and state, including many religious groups themselves, are constantly vigilant in the cause of genuine freedom of conscience. For example in Christian Legal Society v Martinez,  a case involving discrimination in a university society in California, Americans United for separation of Church and State has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the University of California, Hastings College of Law for their commitment to stand up against discrimination.

The case was originally brought by the Christian Legal Society (CLS) after the law school denied funding and official recognition to the organization. UC-Hastings requires that student groups remain open to all students in order to receive university funding and recognition. CLS refuses to abide by that policy and requires all of its members to sign an evangelical statement of faith, while barring membership to students who engage in "unrepentant homosexual conduct."

In 2004, the school told the society it could not make an exception to its discrimination policy, but that "if CLS wishes to form independent of Hastings, [the university] would be pleased to provide the organization the use of Hastings facilities for its meetings and activities."

The school didn't single out CLS for its beliefs, but rather, asked that the group abide by the same rules that all groups on campus must and do follow.


UC-Hastings seems more than fair in its decision. After all, if the school gave CLS an exemption from following the non-discrimination policy, wouldn't that be extending a special privilege to this particular religious group that no other student organization has?  

It seems, however, that "special privileges" for certain religious organizations is the trend these days.  This case is not, as you claimed, about protecting "the constitutional rights of religious groups to set membership and leadership criteria according to the dictates of their religious beliefs." Those rights are already protected. Rather, both you and I know at the heart of this case is the issue of public funding of faith-based groups. CLS, like many other faith-based groups, wants to take public funds and be able to discriminate and proselytize, too.

The American Supreme Court has said "it is beyond dispute that any public entity, state or federal, has a compelling interest in assuring that public not serve to finance the evil of private prejudice." City of Richmond v. J .A. Croson Co.

The lawyers for Americans United are asking: Why should students be required to fund the "private prejudices" of CLS?

No other student group expects this. A current student leader from UC-Hastings' Jewish Law Students Association (HJLSA) said her group accepts and welcomes students from all faith backgrounds. She said the university doesn't "force" them to admit students of other faiths; it's merely a choice of whether the group wants university recognition and funds, or not.

In fact, HJLSA only accepts school funding to carry out its secular activities. The group does not even use school funds for religious events. Instead, to pay for religious activities, such as Shabbat dinners, HJLSA relies on donations from alumni and collaboration with the local Hillel. But the group chooses to invite all students from different backgrounds to share in religious events. If you want to find out more about this and other cases, DOGS refer you to Lynn v. Sekulow an ongoing debate blog--a blogalogue--about how big (or little) a role faith and religion should play in American politics and government, featuring the two leading voices of the church/state battle: American Center for Law & Justice Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow and Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Rev. Barry W. Lynn.


Imagine this level of litigation in support of freedom of conscience in Australia.


But then, in this country our religious organisations have become so used to the drip-feed of taxpayers’ dollars enabling them to indoctrinate children that they have forgotten the faithful.  Parishioners are no longer contributing to their coffers because they have quietly left the pews to the church mice.









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