The Anglican Diocese of Sydney has passed a controversial policy banning a range of businesses and organisations from using its properties but retracted one tenet that had offended Aboriginal Australians.
As previously reported, the policy is a means of restricting the use of church-owned properties – including commercial premises such as retail stores, as well as church halls available for temporary hire – by organisations and for activities of which the church disapproves.
“It arose in the context of the same-sex marriage debates last year and the realisation that the changing legal landscape had put our Anglican institutions at risk of anti-discrimination complaints and other adverse action,” Michael Stead, the presiding bishop, said.
Bishop Stead claimed that Australian laws contain “almost no positive protection for freedom of religion”.
“To rely on existing anti-discrimination exemptions, a religious institution must demonstrate that its actions conform to the ‘doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion’. To ensure that the courts know what ‘our doctrines, tenets or beliefs’ are, we need a clear articulation of our doctrines,” he said.
The bishop claimed that at least one church stopped hiring its hall externally based on legal advice that it could be breaching anti-discrimination rules by letting to some parties but not others.
“Their legal advice was – don’t do this, unless there is a clear statement of your doctrines, tenets and beliefs, which explains that this was why you said no rather than because you are discriminating.”
The diocese was forced to back away from initial moves to ban certain Aboriginal smoking ceremonies – which are often used in schools as part of education programs around indigenous culture and heritage – following community backlash.
Bishop Stead suggested media reports on the proposal had been “erroneous” but acknowledged there needed to be greater consultation particularly with Indigenous Christians.
“The original ban was not a ban on all smoking ceremonies, only those with a spirituality inconsistent with Christianity. However, on wider advice from Aboriginal Christians, we realised that we need to consult more widely, because the spiritual significance of smoking ceremonies differs in different places,” he said.
“Moreover, this discussion needs to be part of the wider conversation about reconciliation between the first peoples of this country and its later arrivals and needs to be driven by Indigenous Christians.
“It was clumsy to address this in a proper use policy, and I readily withdraw it, with deep apologies to the Aboriginal community.”
A spokesperson for the diocese noted that the policy serves as a “framework and guide for decision-making”, with commercial leases determined by relevant rental agreements.
One My Business reader claimed the issue was nothing more than “a storm in a tea cup”.
“Many commercial properties already actively discriminate in order to balance out or specialise in certain areas,” they said.
“A shopping mall wants a range of different shops to entice the shopper to stay within the mall. It does not want 15 butcher shops. A medical precinct does not want an undertaker on the ground floor but [would be] quite happy with a pharmacy.”
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