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Church ministers protest against Murdoch paper

FamilyVoice challenges Adelaide Advertiser’s “anti-Christian perspective”

A coalition of 50 ministers have signed a letter of complaint against the Adelaide Advertiser for “unfair commentary and misrepresentation”. This follows a front-page story in South Australia’s only daily newspaper critical of the FamilyVoice Australia (FAVA) submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the “status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief”.

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FAVA argued in its submission that religious freedom required exemptions to the laws against disability discrimination. The FAVA submission also suggested changes to the Age Discrimination Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, and the Fair Work Act, in order to preserve religious freedom. Other Christian groups submitted similar suggested changes but, in its suggested changes to the Disability Discrimination Act, the FAVA submission was broader than many of the large number of submissions from Christian groups received by the inquiry.

“A telephone call by the journalist in advance could have solved this matter.” – Ashley Saunders

The ministers’ letter attacks the “Tiser’s” Political editor Tory Shepherd, claiming that “While all the leaders of Christian congregations ought to accept fair and factual criticism of our wrongdoing, we should not be subjected to Ms Shepherd’s personal anti-Christian perspective.” Their letter also states that The Advertiser did not contact FAVA before publishing its Page One story.

“A telephone call by the journalist in advance could have solved this matter,” FAVA’s National director Ashley Saunders told Eternity.

In their submission to the parliamentary inquiry, FAVA said: “For very good reasons, a religion may not wish to engage a person who has a mental illness and displays disturbed behaviour. Such behaviour would adversely affect a church service, which is sacred in nature.”

The Advertiser story was read by many as suggesting Christians sought a wider ability to discriminate.

The ‘Tiser report began: “FamilyVoice — a national church group based in Adelaide — wants to be allowed to discriminate against people with disabilities because mental illnesses might disturb their ‘sacred space’.” FAVA was arguing that churches should not be forced to hire people that might be unsuitable as leaders, but The Advertiser story was read by many as suggesting Christians sought a wider ability to discriminate.

Published the same day in The Advertiser, a column by Tory Shepherd (“The right to discriminate? That’s hardly Christian”) stirred the pot by suggesting the FAVA submission was aimed at people with Tourette Syndrome, which can include a symptom of uncontrollable language. “People with Tourette get stigmatised by the swearing stuff, and now FamilyVoice is joining in. Adding them to the long list of people who do not get their approval and who they think they should be allowed to discriminate against,” wrote Shepherd.

“It seems like an offensively long way to go just to make sure you don’t have to hire people with Tourette Syndrome.”

But her punchline – which mocked FAVA by inserting a swear word into a saying of Jesus – riled the pastors. “We find the concluding sentence of her opinion piece that was published on 14th June to be gratuitous and highly offensive,” the pastors wrote. “It further debased an already problematic article. We do, however, pray sincerely for Tory Shepherd.”

In an email sent to FAVA supporters, Saunders wrote: “Finally, came the shocking addition of the F-word to a statement from Scripture about the compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“We value the support of volunteers among whom are some with mental health difficulties.” – Ashley Saunders

In response to Eternity‘s follow-up to the initial controversy, Saunders said that Family Voice’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry simply tried to “highlight a deficiency in the [Disability Discrimination] Act that means, in our view, the fundamental freedom of religion is potentially crushed in the face of another protected attribute.”

Eternity also spoke to members of the disability community who questioned FAVA’s stance. Louise Gosbell, who has completed a PhD in disability and the church, said: “Jesus did not come to draw to himself a ritual or liturgy but a holy people. The church is about people. And those people are diverse with a range of different gifts that we are to use in service to God and each other – to serve and allow others to serve us. Not everyone’s gifts are the same but everyone’s gifts are vital for the effective functioning of the body of Christ.”

In his supporters email about the ‘Tiser’s coverage, Saunders continued: “If Tory had bothered to make contact with our ministry, we would have pointed out the fact that we have cheerfully employed staff who have (or who have had) mental health challenges, and we value the support of volunteers among whom are some with mental health difficulties.”

“… all the leaders of Christian congregations ought to accept fair and factual criticism …” Family Voice

FAVA’s email to supporters also says that “we must take a public stand against this and related attacks. It is not acceptable that The Advertiser allow persistent unwarranted attacks on Christian beliefs. This is much bigger than the attack on FamilyVoice, though we represent an obvious target. We are in fact witnessing a challenge to the fundamental freedoms of faith and expression. Sadly, the newspaper continues to allow Tory to unfairly attack Christians and others with whom she disagrees.”

However, as quoted above, the ministers state in their letter to the Editor of The Advertiser: “While all the leaders of Christian congregations ought to accept fair and factual criticism of our wrongdoing, we should not be subjected to Ms Shepherd’s personal anti-Christian perspective”.

There is a US-based website called Get Religion.org which examines the media’s misunderstanding of religion. It’s name comes from the saying “the media doesn’t get religion.” In the US, as in Australia, there has been a consistent reduction in the number of religion specialists in journalism. The axing of the Jon Cleary “Sunday Night” programme on ABC radio is the latest in this decline in Australia.

The Bible states that “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (I Corinthians 2:14). Many Christian leaders will have scars from media invective and gratuitous insult. Adelaide’s 50 pastors are right to be offended (regardless of the merits of FAVAs original submission) but it may be that the media, in this case, reflects a society that does delight in mocking Christians.

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