The Age this morning reported on religious groups mobilising to fight possible changes to anti-discrimination law, which could force religious organisations, including private schools, to end otherwise-prohibited discriminatory practices against people who do not share their beliefs or lifestyles.
In this dispute, I favour religious freedom and believe the current exemptions to anti-discrimination law should be retained.
But ANU academic Margaret Thornton raises a possible complicating issue:
“I think that if private schools receive money from the state, as they do, they should be subject to the law of the land, they should not be able to claim all these exemptions,” she said.
But this kind of argument has huge implications for government’s broader financial relationships with civil society. Should taking any government money give the state total control? (And state governments are minor funding sources for private schools.)
Others on the left certainly don’t think so. A couple of years Clive Hamilton and many others rejected the argument that government funding of NGOs or universities gave the government more than very limited control.
The government has huge legislative power, but in its contractual or quasi-contractual financial relationships it should behave like any other commercial player: it’s entitled to get the service it paid for, but not to take broader control over the other party to the contract. If schools are not willing to sell sacrifice of their religious beliefs or practices, they should not be forced by the financial relationship to do so.
This kind of limiting principle is in the state’s interests as well. If they try to control everything they touch, people won’t deal with them.
Thornton’s argument is a red herring. If religious and cultural freedom is important, we should retain it regardless of the financial relationships some organisations have with the state. If discrimination on sex or lifestyle issues is such a large problem we should not allow exemptions even for organisations that take no government money.