The Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom obviously hasn’t turned out the way its advocates in the right wing of the LNP expected. Far from securing their rights to discriminate against gays, church schools are almost certain to lose that right with respect to students, and will probably also lose it in relation to teachers. A recent opinion poll shows overwhelming opposition to discrimination, even stronger than the vote in favour of equal marriage last year.
The failure of the right on this reflects a central fact about the rightwing version of identity politics. Whereas leftwing forms of identity politics typically assert the rights of minorities to a fairer share of power and respect, the right wing version starts from the assumption that their identity is that of the majority whose historical rights are under threat. So, they see no inconsistency in demanding expansive definitions of freedom for themselves, while rejecting it for others. The same thinking explains the pressure for a plebiscite on equal marriage: despite ample evidence from opinion polls, the right could not believe they were in the minority.
The situation has now changed, and rethinking is needed, both on the right but on the left. Rather than looking to expand the powers of employers to sack people on religious grounds unrelated to their performance at work, those concerned with religious freedom should be concerned about the possibility that such powers will be used against them in the future. A comprehensive protection for workers against dismissal on the basis of grounds unrelated to their performance at work is what is needed here.
As regards the left, we shouldn’t allow large, publicly funded institutions like church schools to practise discrimination. But we need to think more carefully about individuals with religious objections to gay marriage (for example, bakers who don’t want to bake cakes with messages of support for gay marriage) in the same light as other religious minorities who seek protection for their beliefs: Jehovah’s witnesses who object to blood transfusions, Muslim women who want to remain veiled, and so on. Most of these beliefs seem strange and objectionable to non-believers. But where they can be accommodated without doing any serious social damage, we should do so.
More broadly, as I suggested when the Ruddock review was announced, we should take the opportunity to push for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. Now that they are clearly in the minority on crucial issues, perhaps religious believers might see the merit in a supporting such a measure.
fn1. Women aren’t a minority, but they are under-represented.
fn2. It’s typically, though not always, at the point where dominant/majority status is slipping away that this kind of politics emerges.