The Sunday Age reported yesterday that the small religious group the Christian Brethren (not, apparently, to be confused with the Exclusive Brethren), is refusing to permit a gay support group, Way Out, to use its camp ground (the pun cannot be avoided).
Way Out is likely to lose its anti-discrimination case before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, but I expect that they will be one of the last groups to do so.
Exemptions for religious bodies under anti-discrimination law, which the Brethren will use as their defence in this case, are under sustained attack from human rights advocates, with a review of the Victorian legislation under way, and the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner also calling for religious and other exemptions to be removed.
Though I doubt the exemptions will long survive, as with The Peel case last year I prefer a tolerance to a rights-based approach to these issues.
A tolerance-based approach does not exempt groups like the Brethren from criticism. I am happy for negative newspaper articles to be published about them, and would be sympathetic to boycotting Brethren businesses if they refuse to deal with groups like Way Out.
But if the Brethren believe that homosexuality is immoral, as Christians have believed for centuries, should the state be forcing them to act against their conscience and permit a gay camp? Should this now near-deviant view on homosexuality be banned as a guide to action?
A rights-based approach that removes anti-discrimination exemptions for religious organisations goes much further than what is required to allow gay people to go about their business. It’s not as if the Brethren have a monopoly on camping grounds (and indeed Way Out found another one). I doubt there is a single service other than religious services themselves where religious groups are the major providers.
It’s not at all clear to me that religious conscience should be valued at zero when there are workable alternatives. That’s the trouble with ‘rights’ – they tend to award complete victory to one group, rather than fostering compromises that allow everyone space to live according to their beliefs.
The young gay men of Way Out are not old enough to remember the time when homosexuality was illegal, but gay men of all people should be reluctant to support state-enforced moral codes rather than an ethos of toleration.