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Show, don’t tell – (part of) my experience with religious freedom exemptions

A colleague wanted to talk. Not unexpected. Working in a Christian workplace, I originally planned to stay closeted. However, at a dinner party with work colleagues I accidentally mentioned my wife.

My colleague counselled me on the “need” to disclose my relationship to our boss. We’d just taken out a home loan. We wanted to start a family. Now my income was endangered.

After a discussion with my immediate boss, I was passed up the chain to state management. I was advised not to discuss my identity with the students, their parents, my colleagues, or on the internet. Any argument about the erasure of my identity was brushed aside with a reminder of a specific clause in my employment contract.

Australian Christian institutions receive taxpayer funding, often equal to – or exceeding – that of the public system. Nevertheless, church affiliated organisations are exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. The law allowed my employer to discriminate against me as a lesbian.

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We all sin equally, but I question whether love can ever truly be a sin.

The employment contract included vaguely worded clauses such as a requirement for employees to ‘support the ethos of the church’. Did this mean we were required to be regular church-goers? If so, it didn’t concern me. As a practising Christian, I attended church regularly, unlike many work colleagues. But lesbianism apparently ranked higher as a sin than sleeping in on Sunday. Reading between the lines of my employment contract I surmised that we all sin equally, but some more equally.

Some say, “Get another job,” but some LGBTIQ professionals are also people of faith. Working in a faith-based establishment is the job they want and are best qualified for. Others just need a job. In specific industries, such as teaching, there are many applicants for fewer positions. Getting another job may be harder than it sounds.

I accepted my situation. However wrong the conditions of my employment, I had signed a lawful contract. But there was no reciprocal appreciation of my acquiescence. In fact, my working environment became markedly unpleasant with increasing scrutiny of my behaviour.

Socialising with colleagues was discouraged because it might lead to my being ‘found out’. When another staff member repeatedly made inappropriate comments towards me, I was told, she knew I was gay and the comments were her way of processing it.

Maybe.

I considered resigning. I sent hundreds of applications to advertised jobs, and attended interviews. I even considered unemployment. At times, living with no disposable income seemed a better option than my hostile work environment. Throughout this process, I developed anxiety. I had sleepless nights. When I cried on the way to work, I knew something had to change.

Finally, management suggested a staff event to address my situation. Far from it being an LGBTIQ+ inclusion and awareness event, it was a Bible study on homosexuality. There would be open discussion on various viewpoints and the opportunity to ‘out’ myself. I would face a jury of my colleagues (some not yet aware of my sexuality). The (im)morality of my life, my sexuality, my marriage all up for public judgement in a way none of my heterosexual colleagues would ever have to face. Nauseated at the thought, I threatened to take the day off sick. The idea was discarded.

I now felt at the mercy of everybody else’s ‘freedom of religion’. I had no legal protection. I resigned. I was sad to leave the people I worked with, as many supported me behind closed doors, but I knew it was for the best. Even as a reverent Christian, I will never again teach in a faith-based employment setting.

My lived experience and the knowledge that others experience the same hopelessness cause me to strongly oppose exemptions from the discrimination laws. The freedom to discriminate is out of step with the views of our nation. It is also morally reprehensible.

I would argue that Jesus would not stand for it, despite what his loud, self-appointed spokespersons might say. Fortunately my story has a happy ending, but there is no limit to the harm that can be done when institutions have the freedom to discriminate.

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