There Shouldn’t Be One Law for Religions, Another for the Rest

Retiring sex discrimination commissioner Pru Goward’s parting comments on the unfettered capacity of the nation’s religious institutions to practise gender discrimination were the most interesting – and contentious – of her tenure.

Despite the generous support of such institutions by the Australian Government through tax exemptions and funding for religious schools, the institutional and liturgical practices of the church show blithe disregard for federal laws that prohibit the unfair treatment of Australian women on the basis of their gender, marital or pregnancy status. “It’s a huge law-free zone,” said Goward.

Her contrasting of the nation’s intolerance of practices that perpetuate inequality between the races, but laissez-faire attitude to parallel ones that allow gender inequity, is both acute and timely. Most Australians would agree that a religion that claimed that race was a legitimate ground for denying a congregant a leadership role in the church, or for physically segregating him from others during services was immoral, and should be unlawful.

Yet, both victims of race and gender discrimination suffer attenuated aspirations and opportunities. Why should the law give a privilege to the rights of believers to be free of racial discrimination, but cry “religious tolerance” whenever complaints of gender discrimination are made? How can a nation that allows the nation’s churches to deny equal opportunity to women assert that gender equity is a fundamental Aussie value?

One reason Australian lawmakers might see sexism, but not racism, as a lesser evil than the restriction of religious freedom is the integral role sexism plays in the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Race was a potent concept before and around the time of Jesus, but it was a voluntary category defined by the individual’s choice of faith. The contemporary understanding of race – as a set of inalterable and unchosen physical characteristics – does not feature in the Torah or the Gospels as a category that either inherently limits or expands an individual’s access to God. In practical terms, this means that not only does the enforcement of legal prohibitions on racism have little practical impact on the church’s teachings, but that the scriptures offer little to defend those who discriminate on grounds of race.

Sadly, this is not the case for gender. While the fictional nature of much of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is beyond question, the general thesis about the determination of the first Christians to suppress the feminine is correct.

Paul, in particular, seemed determined to ignore Jesus’s more gender-egalitarian bent and to pursue gentile converts to the new sect by impressing them with the modesty of Christian women. The ancient Hebrews bequeathed to the first Christians (most of whom came from pious Jewish backgrounds) a view of women as unclean creatures with no independent standing in the eyes of God. For women to be seen by God – the only way in such cultures for her to acquire social status – they must maintain dutiful familial relationships with men: fathers, brothers, husbands. The spinsters, widows and divorcees who lacked such relationships, or who, once engaged in them, failed to deliver virginity and later sons, risked being cast out from the community.

There is evidence that such antiquated views of women continue to influence the contemporary practices of some Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations. Whether it’s Orthodox Jews daily thanking God for not making them women, Muslim schools refusing to hire unmarried women, or Christian ones dismissing women when they became pregnant, Australian women of faith are subject to treatment that reflects limited views about their full humanity and denies them opportunities for no other reason than that they are female.

Religious leaders are no amateurs when it comes to defending male privilege in the liturgy and hierarchy. “Our holy books command us to treat women this way,” they protest, conveniently forgetting the redundancy of scriptural commandments to stone adulterers, or forcibly marry rapists to their victims. Alternatively, they argue that if women weren’t content with second-class citizenship, they’d have fled the churches long ago.

Would that it were so simple. As the recent expose on ABC’s Four Corners made clear, the fundamentalist Exclusive Brethren exact high costs – such as life-long separation from spouses and children – from those who exit. It is also unclear whether a guarantee of more realistic exit rights is a just response to unlawful discrimination by religious orders.

Would we deem “lump it or leave” an acceptable response to Aboriginal Australians who complained that their church was denying them leadership positions and demanding they sit in pews at the back? Or would we feel that Aborigines have a right to membership in a church free of institutionalised racism.

Sexism is just as eviscerating to the dignity, self-esteem, aspirations and opportunities of women as racism is to people of colour. It was the recognition of this fact that led to the passage of the Federal Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. More than 20 years later, it is high time its provisions were fully enforced.

Publication history

There Shouldn't Be One Law for Religions, Another for the Rest  The Age