The exemption [from anti-discrimination law for religious schools] stands or falls on whether there is something so unique about religious belief in education that it should over-ride the principles of equal employment opportunity that the community applies to virtually every other workplace. …. Why should some employers be able to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief when the law specifically proscribes this for the general population?
To me the issue stands or falls on the conceptual basis for including religion in anti-discrimination law in the first place.
On one view it is because religion is deeply important to many people, and as a community we accept that we all should be allowed to live according to our spiritual-cultural beliefs. Anti-discrimination law means that people don’t have to hide their religion when looking for a job or buying services. This is likely to be especially important for people who display religious symbols or dress in accordance with religious norms.
On another (not mutually exclusive) view, religion has a long history of causing social strife. With some glaring exceptions like Northern Ireland, Western countries have largely dealt with this through the practice of toleration. Anti-discrimination law gives legal force to this practice of just putting up with other religious beliefs, whether we like them or not.
On these justifications, the legal exemptions given to organisations based on religion are not conceptual exemptions. Rather they give effect to the underlying ideas that religion is important and that the chances that religion will cause social strife should be minimised.
Without the exemption, we are saying to religious people that while you can believe whatever you want and we will protect that in secular settings, we will not permit you to create the institutions you believe necessary to practice and promote your religion.
This sounds like a very bad deal with religious believers. They are protected against an inconvenience (most businesses couldn’t care less what religion their employees or customers have, so in the event one does have negative views just find another) at the cost of their unique organisations.
Similarly, it undermines tolerance. As the original Sunday Age article showed, state attacks on religious organisations are bound to cause strife.
To give effect to their conceptual basis, the legal structure of anti-discrimination law should exempt organisations based on its characteristics. So religious organisations can discriminate on the basis of religion, single sex organsations can discriminate on the basis of sex, ethnic organisations can discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, etc.