Law & Politics

The need for caution when prioritising employers’ values over individuals’ rights

Many would see the removal of Andrew Thorburn from his position as a victory for progressive values over intolerance. While this messy saga illustrates how swiftly our society is moving away from traditional values, it also indicates a chilling effect on freedoms that should give us reason for pause. 

The first key takeaway is that the conversative beliefs of Christianity are not just out of step with society, they are now viewed as completely unacceptable. Given recent debates on marriage equality and the legalising of abortion, this is hardly surprising. The stand taken on traditional values has only solidified the opposition to them. 

We’ve made up our mind and removed the shield of protection traditionally given to religious beliefs. 

When it comes to inclusion and diversity, we no longer tolerate discriminatory views, even if they are based on sincerely held religious convictions. And this is rightly so, because a religious belief is no better than any other belief. Some would argue they are worse, given they have no basis in science or empirical evidence. 

The Thorburn issue illustrates how bankrupt these archaic religious positions have become. Politicians should be beginning to realise that noisy religious lobbyists represent few Australians – Christian or otherwise. The disconnect between their beliefs and modern society continues to grow. 

Note the incongruity of the Thorburn affair compared with the power and privilege Christianity continues to enjoy in our society. As Michael Bradley noted in Crikey, why should they continue to enjoy such generous funding and tax-free status? 

Our private school network is dominated by Christian schools. If there is any cause for disquiet in the Thorburn affair, it occurs when the shoe is on the other foot.

On the one hand, we are overjoyed at the victory of inclusive values at the Essendon Football Club, but how does this play out when the values are changed to those of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart school?

We note with disdain the apparent hypocrisy of groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby, which condemns any employers impinging on the free speech of Christians, whilst lobbying to maintain the right to sack LGBTI or divorced teachers from their own schools. Apparently, hypocrisy is a human universal. 

The key question is: to what extent must we sign on to the stated values and mission of our employer? We might reflect on how often the employers themselves behave in accord with these values. 

Surely, there is something Orwellian about the increasing level of corporate conformity demanded of employees. Freedom of thought is inviolable; thus laws seeking to enforce certain beliefs and opinions are authoritarian by definition.

Freedom of thought is inviolable; thus laws seeking to enforce certain beliefs and opinions are authoritarian by definition

While Thorburn’s leadership position and dual role naturally incline us to favour the decision Essendon took, the issue is not so straightforward when it comes to employees of religious schools, hospitals and aged-care facilities. 

If we applaud Essendon’s actions, what do we think of Christian organisations taking a similar stance on science teachers, surgeons, or physiotherapists?  

In judging this matter, most commentators have applied the principle that, as a leader, Thorburn must have to accept Essendon’s values. But this principle does not apply so happily when the values are out of touch with society itself. 

Our society must continue to vouchsafe people’s rights to their own beliefs and their own lifestyles. It might well be in the best interest of companies to choose staff who are best aligned with their values, but we should hesitate to strong-arm employment laws to enforce stringent conformity. I doubt many Christian organisations would be able to fully staff their businesses if fealty to their stated values was required.

Further, since we all balance our consciences between our actions as an employee, I have no doubt that Andrew Thorburn could have undertaken his role without any actual problems. 

There’s a good reason why the issue was never highlighted in the interview process. Since he has obviously never acted in accordance with the more extreme sermons of City on a Hill, there was no reason for concern. His inviolable beliefs would not have prevented him from fulfilling his role. Thorburn is not required to agree, he is required to manage and facilitate. 

That he could have been Prime Minister, but not an Essendon Football club chief, highlights the strange incongruity. 

Essendon’s issue was bad publicity. The issue was only raised when the media pointed out the glaring discrepancies in values. 

As previous Bombers chairman, Paul Little, noted, “When you’re the head of a football club, you can’t afford to have contentious issues out there — they need to be dealt with.”

It’s not that he couldn’t have done the job; it’s just the bad press. Notably the problem would not exist without the publicising of the issue and the inevitable blowback.

Rather than rationalising outcomes with our own values and beliefs, we should exercise caution when applying the principle that employers’ values trump the rights of employees. 

Thorburn’s specific situation can be differentiated from a teacher or a student in a Christian school. We should remind ourselves that these disputes are more than a contest of values, and that freedom of thought should remain front of mind.

So perhaps we should temper our schadenfreude in the secure knowledge that progress is never made by undermining free speech or by punishing dissenting views. As I have argued, recent events demonstrate the opposite.

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Image: Rob Masefield (Flickr, CC); Andrew Thorburn (LinkedIn)

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