Discrimination must not be tolerated

By David Swanton 

Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 in ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate



The equality of all humans should be one of the most fundamental principles embedded in the moral frameworks and legal systems of civilised societies. It rightly forms the basis of Article 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, such a fundamental principle has not been properly established in many countries. Equality is denied when discrimination occurs. Discrimination is relatively commonplace, and particularly firmly entrenched in many religious organisations. Widespread discrimination can lead to intolerance and conflict, because, unsurprisingly, those who are discriminated against object to being treated as second-class citizens. 

Australia's recently drafted Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 is commendable in its objectives but does little to reduce discrimination. It claims aspiringly 'to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and racial vilification, consistently [sic] with Australia's obligations under the human rights instruments and the ILO instruments'. However, this proposed legislation offers special measures, including exemptions to religious organisations so they can continue to discriminate on such attributes as religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy etc. It would seem that most governments lack the courage to stop religious organisations from discriminating. Some religions discriminate against people if they are not of the requisite religion (and subjective religions are related to race/culture), or preferred sex, sexual orientation, and marital status. Australia's proposed legislation does not remove this inequity.

A distinction should firstly be made between invidious discrimination, which should be eliminated, and appropriate differentiation, of individuals or groups. Invidious discrimination occurs when a person or organisation treats others unfavourably because of their particular attributes, whether that be a person's sex, sexual orientation, marital status, race etc. In contrast, appropriate differentiation would allow, for example, without claims of discrimination, segregated sporting events to occur for men and women, and an age limit to be applied to learning drivers, because a reasonable and objective explanation can be developed in these cases. 

Within this framework, it is apparent there is no reasonable and objective explanation why a mathematics teacher at any school could not be an unmarried, pregnant, multi-coloured lesbian of no religion (or of another religion). The ability to teach mathematics is independent of the aforementioned attributes. To be denied a job because of a person's particular attributes is a denial of equality that ought not be tolerated in a civilised society.

The discriminatory and bigoted values of some of the mainstream churches are no more ethically 'right' than the racist values that were relatively commonplace in the middle of the twentieth century. How can racial discrimination be ethically wrong but sexual discrimination be permitted? How can there be a moral basis for an Islamic black man who discriminates against women complaining that he is being discriminated against? How can a religious male politician who denies lesbians the right to marriage or to be a leader in his church claim that he treats people equally? There is no justification for any of these situations because there is no moral distinction between these types of invidious discrimination. Intolerance of, and discrimination against, people with particular attributes is bigotry.

Many religions try to justify their religious discrimination as a right, the freedom to practise one's religion. But such a right impacts adversely on others. So what happens when there is a conflict between religious freedoms and the rights of an individual, such as an individual's right to be treated equally and not to be subjected to invidious discrimination? 

Many religions preach some variant of the ethical golden rule, or doing unto others as they do unto you. Members of one religion would not like members of other religions to exercise their religious freedom if that involved the imposition of the other religion on them, or allowing the other religion to kill them (if that were a 'view' of the other religion). Even if it were something more trivial, such as having another religion's eating rituals being imposed on them, this would be a cause of stern objection. 

That people do not want their individual rights to be violated by another religion (or any other person, organisation or government for that matter) is the key. It is then straightforward to conclude that a freedom of religion should only extend so far as to where it does not impinge on the rights of other individuals. People can believe in and practice what they wish, no matter how profound, or silly and deluded, that might be, but not if it denies other people's equality or human rights, causes discrimination, or otherwise adversely affects other individuals. A regime of religious discrimination juxtaposed on a principle of doing unto others as they do unto you is hypocrisy.

To avoid claims of having hypocritical bigoted views, one would think that religious organisations would reject their current discriminatory views and advocate legislative change that condemned and prohibited all invidious discrimination. Unfortunately, enlightened change is not the way of the bigot.

To explore further the nature of religious discrimination, consider the following scenario. What if a new religion were to be established tomorrow, and an inspired person drafts a religious text that reflects the views of the newly conceived and perfect God. The newly drafted religious text includes the following verses attributable to the new God.

  • A black person should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a black person to teach or to have authority over a non-black person; the black person must be silent.
  • Any black person who is arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the priest who represents your God must die.
  • A black person who works on God's holy day will be put to death.
  • If a person has sex with a black person, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own hands.

The above verses are racist and abhorrent. They deny black people equality. Such a religious text must be treated with the contempt that any racially discriminatory text deserves. The proponents of the new religion would say that their God moves in mysterious ways or that the text is not meant to be taken literally. Neither explanation conceals the underlying racism and discrimination.

The astute observer would realise that these verses have been extracted from the Christian Bible and reworked to substitute the phrase 'black person' in biblical verses that condemn women, non-believers, a person who works contrary to God's laws, and homosexuals. It is clear that the terms 'woman', or 'gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexperson', 'Caucasian male', or 'pregnant person' could have been similarly substituted. 

If the newly drafted religious text is abhorrent, discriminatory and unacceptable in modern society, then so too is the Christian religion. Other discriminatory religions and organisations should be condemned with equal vigour. 

It follows that public funding or support of any discriminatory religious organisations should be handled in the same manner as that for a body that might discriminate on the basis of race: governments should condemn them and never support or finance them, directly or indirectly.

It is absurd in modern society that governments give massive tax exemptions, and exemptions from discrimination legislation, to religious organisations. Many religions teach that only people of their religion are worthy of reward in a speculated afterlife. They discriminate in churches and hospitals, educational institutions and nursing homes. In recent times a horrendous record of child sexual abuse in religious institutions has become public. Furthermore, many churches indoctrinate children to worship a god or gods that, according to their scriptures, are guilty of indiscriminately killing humans­­­-the most warped of moral messages. Religions peddling discrimination and perverse moral messages deserve condemnation.

It would seem that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is no more than an aspirational piece of paper. People must work hard to secure the most fundamental of rights, because, while governments continue to allow people, organisations and religions to invidiously discriminate, there can be no equality.


David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.