Last Friday, in the wake of the debate around whether religious schools should be able to expel gay students and fire gay teachers, a familiar theme stirred in The Australian: 

The head of the Presbyterian church in Australia has warned Scott Morrison that the ability of religious schools to insist on separate uniforms, sporting teams and toilets for boys and girls will be open to legal challenge under a government plan to outlaw discrimination against gay students.

John Wilson, the moderator-general of the Presbyterian church, has provided The Australian with an extract of a letter sent yesterday to the prime minister. It reveals widespread concern among religious schools teaching 300,000 students about the un­intended consequences of legislation aimed at better protecting gay students from discrimination.

Ah, those magical words: “unintended consequences”. It’s far from the first time that this type of argument has been reached for by religious institutions in this country. To hear some prominent church officials tell it, Australian society is forever tiptoeing along a greasy precipice, just waiting for any kind anti-discrimination reform to come along and give it a little shove.

Let’s look back at how those “slippery slope” predictions have previously run their course, just in recent history.

Decriminalisation of homosexuality

As homosexuality was decriminalised across Australian states, slowly, through the 1980s, Tasmania remained a stubborn hold out. In 1994, the UN issued a savage condemnation of Tasmania’s laws and the federal government passed a (fairly lukewarm) bill in response, forbidding “arbitrary” state meddling in private sexual matters. As Rodney Croome wrote in the Alternative Law Journal at the time: 

The church flew into a typical clerical fluster over the bill’s possible legitimisation of prostitution, the sale of pornography, incest and abortion. Apparently Australian courts can too easily be tempted by the wily counsel of licentious minority groups to define everything which takes place below the belt as sexual and legitimate. The church was wrong about what activities the commonwealth bill could legitimise, but it was right that the bill was vague. 

In further news that will sound familiar, Croome writes that the movement against reform — “unlike anything seen in Australia before” — used “rhetoric adopted directly from the religious right in the United States”.

Back in 2008, the Vatican also opposed a UN declaration calling on any remaining countries outlawing homosexuality to strike down those laws because ….

… the church is worried that its theological opposition to same-sex sexual acts, gay marriage and same-sex civil unions, could be portrayed as an attack on human rights and make the church and its agencies liable to “discrimination” by state or international bodies in the future.

Abortion rights

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk kept schtum on her pro-choice views on legislation making access to abortion easier in Queensland, which were passed last month in a historic win.

Her position may have had something to do with relentless campaigning church leader, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who — apart from the draw-dropping call to liken abortion to child abuse — argued that the legislation would lead to “abortion until the day that a baby is born”. 

The myth of “selfish women” being able to recklessly access late term abortions has been summarily dismissed by women’s health experts.

Marriage equality 

A longer article than this one could be dedicated to the number of times during the marriage equality debate religious institutions “warned” that what was at stake had very little to do with two adults being able to marry. For example, remember how it was argued marriage equality will lead to faith schools being deregistered?

“I was prompted to write to Andrew Hastie when parents and old boys asked me what this legislation will mean for our college and other schools like ours,” Scots College principal Dr Ian Lambert told Crikey at the time .“The simple answer is that I do not know and there appears to be no way to find out.”

Except, of course, the bill was, at the time, publicly available and actively analysed in the media, and curriculum and marriage law are in no way related. However, the slippery slope argument always eventually ended up on what would happen in schools. Remember the Coalition for Marriage and their “concerned mums”?

“School told my son he can wear a dress next year if he felt like it”…“When same-sex marriage passes as law overseas this type of program become widespread and compulsory.”  That theory — connecting marriage equality with “compulsory” lessons on gender fluidity — was of course routinely debunked. And it wasn’t just fringe dwellers making this argument. Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies gave these guys a million dollars

“I consider the consequences of removing gender from the marriage construct will have irreparable consequences for our society, for our freedom of speech, our freedom of conscience and freedom of religion,” he said at the time. 

Are there any other slippery slope arguments you’ve seen from religious groups on similar issues? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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