People with disability and mental illness belong in church
FamilyVoice push to let churches refuse jobs to those with ‘disturbed behaviour’ disappoints disability sector
Christian advocacy group FamilyVoice has come under attack for its submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry into freedom of belief which argued that religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws do not go far enough.
Its initial submission 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.”
After mainstream media picked up the story, FamilyVoice issued a press release to clarify its position.
National director Ashley Saunders said the submission did not seek to exclude people with mental illness from church services but rather that churches could legally refuse employment to those who displayed disturbed behaviour.
“We hold the view that it would be most unhelpful if a religious organisation had no option but to engage someone in a public role who (for example), struggled with uncontrollable urges to loudly vocalise profanity or sexually explicit phraseology that would upset family worship services,” he said.
“Our policy submission raises concerns about problematic behaviours, not disability status.” – FamilyVoice
“We have absolutely no desire to exclude disabled persons. Our policy submission raises concerns about problematic behaviours, not disability status.”
Speaking to Eternity, Saunders said FamilyVoice’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.”
Saunders said the submission pointed out the need for a religious exemption to the Disability Discrimination Act. It was not based on any practical examples, but “there may be circumstances where churches need to protect people from that behaviour.” He emphasised that there was no desire to exclude anyone.
However, people who work and live in the disability space do not see it the same way.
The mother of a teenage boy who has severe autism asks, “What are we afraid of? Even if our kids and old people sit there and hear these words shouted out, can’t we understand why it’s happening and love that person and accept it? We don’t have to see it as offensive or them being offensive. It’s something that they can’t control.”
“What’s the big deal? I found my kids are more understanding if you say to them that the kid is doing that for these reasons. I don’t know why we’re so afraid of these things.”
“The minute you give people the message that they’re not good enough to be included, you’re preaching a different gospel.” – Mother of an autistic boy
The mother, who asked to remain anonymous, told Eternity she has been on a long journey with her church working out how to include her son and their family in the life of the community. It hasn’t always gone smoothly.
Several years ago she was asked to not bring her son, who often makes loud noises, to a church baptism because his outbursts might hinder others hearing the gospel. She was, understandably, distressed.
“My biggest dilemma is that the church misses out. Whenever you exclude someone with a disability you miss out on their gifts and you miss out on seeing the gospel played out before your eyes, which is that none of us have benchmarks that we have to reach to receive the gospel, the gift of grace. The minute you give people the message that they’re not good enough to be included, you’re preaching a different gospel.
“If we exclude part of the body of Christ we miss out on reflecting Jesus in the best way we can; in a way, the whole church suffers.”
She admits that including people with disability in the life of a local church is hard, but also points to the story in Mark 2 where four men bring their friend who can’t walk to meet Jesus.
“It took four people to get that one person to meet Jesus, and that wasn’t very productive, but that was how he came to know Jesus.”
Louise Gosbell, who has completed a PhD in disability and the church, questions the idea of upholding “sacred” services and traditions over individual people.
“Not everyone’s gifts are the same but everyone’s gifts are vital for the effective functioning of the body of Christ.” – Louise Gosbell
“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.
“It is in our diversity of gifts and our weaknesses that we together become this body. We are to bear with one another and learn from each other. If we leave out people with disability or mental illness because we think they are ‘disruptive’ then we are really missing what it means to be the body of Christ in all its fullness.”
Gosbell says all humans bear the image of God, and “we don’t carry less of this image when we have a physical disability or a mental illness.”
“People with disabilities have extraordinary gifts that help us see the kind of God we worship.” – Mel Fung
Mel Fung, founder of Jesus Club, a ministry for people with disability, says that in her 12 years running the ministry she has “discovered that people with disabilities have extraordinary gifts that help us see the kind of God we worship. I even think our members can do this in a more profound way than more able-bodied people can.
“When our members sing exuberantly and of out-of-tune to their God, their joy is palpable. While Christians often have to drag themselves to church, our members memorise the dates of Jesus Club because they so love gathering together. In this way, our members show what it is to be a Christian – joyfully and simply coming to God a receiving his gift of friendship.
“What a mistake it is to dismiss this people and their gifts, awkward outbursts and all.”More