I read with dismay a couple of weeks ago the conclusion to which a judge came when he presided over a VCAT case between a Christian camp site and a gay organisation. Several things come to light as a result of this case, for its significance goes far beyond the result itself. These relate to both the remarks of the judge himself, the implications this case may have for the promotion of Christian truth in the public square (not to mention the promotion of any idea in the public square), and the effect such a decision may have on the robustness of our democracy.
For those interested to know, the Christian camp site was ordered to pay $5000 to the gay organisation as a result of what was seen as unfair discrimination. In coming to his conclusions, the presiding judge made a number of revealing comments. He said: “They are not entitled to impose their beliefs on others in a manner that denies them the enjoyment of their right to equality and freedom from discrimination in respect of a fundamental aspect of their being…” (The Age, October 10th, 2010)
This strikes me as inadequate on two counts. First, the judge argued that the camp site attempted to impose its beliefs on the gay organisation. This is, for one thing, flatly false. The camp site did not try to force the members of the gay organisation to renounce and abandon their homosexual identity or behaviour; that would have constituted the imposition of one’s views upon another. The camp site did not even attempt to dissuade the gay organisation from following this way of life. It merely rebuffed requests to use its facilities, based upon its rejection of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle. This is not the imposition of beliefs; it is the preservation of beliefs in the face of requests that would potentially undermine their integrity. Why this should be seen as a problem, especially when those convictions are exercised in a civil manner in a democratic polity, is somewhat mystifying – and somewhat troubling, as we shall see. But the judgment was not merely wrong; it was also ironic in its hypocritical application. In ruling as he did, the judge was the one guilty of imposition. In ordering the camp site to pay $5000, he essentially forced it to accept the rightness of the gay organisation’s position. This is true imposition, enacted according to judicial fiat. That to me is inimical to a functioning democratic culture, and I shall return to this below.
Something else the judge said also warrants comment. He argued that the camp site was guilty of unfair discrimination because it denied one’s right to life and enjoyment “in respect of a fundamental aspect of their being…” Now, the judge is undoubtedly convinced that this position – his position – is correct. But this is precisely what is at issue. It was the very rejection of the italicized portion of that quote that led the camp site to reject the gay organisation’s request to use its facilities. As Christians who are committed to the truth and reliability of Scripture, the owners of the camp site believe that the judge’s views regarding the status of the homosexuality is precisely wrong. They, (and I), do not believe that one’s proclaimed homosexuality is a fundamental aspect of their being. Indeed, we would argue that homosexuality is actually a manifestation of humanity’s corruption. It is no more fundamental to true humanity than is greed or pride. The idea that because something is felt intensely or deeply by a person – whether it be homosexuality or some other identity – it must therefore be a natural part of their being, is a complete contradiction of Christian ethical principles. Without going into the specifics of the biblical witness, it is clear that Scripture condemns homosexual practice as a sign of humanity’s alienation from God. This conviction is diametrically opposed to the judge’s position, and only his arbitrary authority (arbitrary in the way it was exercised) was able to break the impasse between two views that differed at a fundamental, structural point. Ordering the camp site operators to pay the money that it did is tantamount to forcing it give tacit approval to a behaviour it believes to be morally wrong.
This leads me to the worrying implications that flow from this decision. According to this latest ruling, it would appear that when there is a fundamental disagreement over a particular issue involving a Christian party, the views of the prevailing culture win out. Given that we live in a society that has increasingly moved towards the normalisation of homosexuality as a viable option for individuals, we can expect faithfulness to, and proclamation of, Christian truth to become harder. We should be concerned as Christians, since our ability to challenge people with the wisdom that we offer and embody may be curtailed as this society moves further and further away from a Christian ethic. Indeed, it may well be the case that the dominant ethic, so inimical to Christianity at many points, will be imposed upon Christian groups and churches. The judge’s ruling showed that, and I expect that a precedent may have been set. But we should also be concerned as democratic citizens. A private operator’s inability to run his or her business according to his or her convictions because of judicial fiat does not bode well for the trajectory of our democracy. As noted earlier, the camp site did not attempt to impose its views upon the organisation; nor did it bar that organisation from finding an alternative location. Nonetheless, it has been made an example of, raising troubling questions surrounding the status of the church (as an institution) in contemporary society and the future of our democratic structures. Sorting through competing ideas via the rulings of a judge is no way to operate a thriving democracy. Similarly, to rule against a particular group because its ideas do not “fit in” with currently prevailing cultural trends undermines our democratic foundations.
Ultimately, I believe that the judge’s decision is not only philosophically flawed, but is also politically dangerous. It may well be that such a decision will only exacerbate the very divisions and inequalities that it seeks to erase. One thing is clear, however: the church must not abandon its commitment to God’s wisdom regarding this or any other matter, simply because of the punitive measures that may be taken against us. Of course, we should always – always – speak the truth in love, and not respond with slander or with vengeance. But never let it be said that the church of Melbourne fails to speak up when God’s truth is being assailed.