What’s at stake in the religious freedom debate

Karen Pack’s story highlights the rights of an employee versus those of a Christian institution

The religious discrimination debate will continue beyond the election, no matter which side of politics wins. There are two critical components to the agonisingly extended discussion: whether some religious bodies will survive in their current form and whether people’s lives will continue to be caught in the crossfire of this cultural skirmish.

Historian Karen Pack’s story, part of the recent ABC Compass program on the Religious Discrimination Bill (RDB), is an example of the brutal conflict between the rights of LGBTIQ people and religious bodies.

Pack was employed by Morling College, the Baptist college in Sydney (and now Perth) that trains Baptist ministers – until she became engaged to her same-sex partner.

“They definitely fired me,” Pack says of her dismissal. “I did not leave of my own choice.

“We’d just signed a contract to buy our first home. I was fired right in the middle of the pandemic. I didn’t choose to go; I was made to go. And in fact, the letters that the college leadership sent out to all the staff in the college and to all the students that I taught made it very explicit. They actually said explicitly, ‘Karen has a deep and profound faith in Jesus Christ and we don’t question that, we know the genuineness of her faith. Karen is an excellent educator who has had a profound impact on the college and we’re so grateful for that, but Karen is getting engaged to her same-sex partner and therefore the principal and the board have made the decision that she can no longer work here.'”

“The reality that you know, that you’ve internalised your whole life, is it that [God’s love] is actually conditional.” – Karen Pack

To be trapped in the centre of the religious freedom debate must be a horrible experience.

“It’s terrifying to come out as a gay Christian,” Pack told the ABC’s 7.30 program earlier. “It’s literally terrifying – especially, I think, when you’ve grown up in the church, within a culture that tells you that your belonging and your value is unconditional, that it is based on the love of God, that it is based on the love of Jesus for all people, but the reality that you know, that you’ve internalised your whole life, is it that it is actually conditional.”

Pack was employed by Morling College, the Baptist college in Sydney (and now Perth), which trains Baptist Ministers. Training ministers, priests, rabbis and imans – forming religious leaders – is where the identity of religious networks of churches, synagogues, and mosques is maintained. And yet these colleges are also employers, and from time to time, people employed in them will come out. What happens then?

Karen Pack’s story raises the question of whether the rights of the employee or the institutions will prevail.

Immersed in the Baptists

In February 2021, the NSW/ACT Baptists passed motions at a Special Assembly that affirmed: “In principle that continued support for the basic doctrines, objects and core values of the association should be an ongoing requirement for affiliation.” The motions included setting up systems to have member churches and accredited ministers uphold those commitments.

The Baptists’ “common values statement” includes a commitment to “marriage as an institution created by God as the foundation for a lifelong faithful union of a man and a woman.”

The NSW/ACT Baptists had a remarkably delicate debate. There were strong feelings from a group of five churches that initiated the discussion and from a group that resisted firming up the church network’s ability to take a stand. The debate centred mainly on process – should they have a means of excluding those who do not share their doctrinal common values? – with the practical effect of leaving differing views on sexuality somewhat unspoken.

Inevitably, a Karen Pack or someone else would have turned up, given time.

Each time, there is real pain and exclusion no matter which side “wins”.

Having reported on several church debates on sexuality, I have concluded it is invidious to try to measure the pain on the conservative and progressive sides of the division. But each time, there is real pain and exclusion no matter which side “wins”. And individual human beings are caught in the middle.

Other sites of the sexuality conflict – such as schools – can permit solutions, with many examples of LGBTIQ students and teachers being made welcome at hospitable schools, including conservative religious ones.

But the training and selection of religious ministers is at the sharp end of the debate.

Schools and theological colleges are different

Schools and theological colleges are often lumped together when people debate whether Australia needs a religious discrimination bill.

For example, the recent ABC Compass program which balanced the story of Karen Pack with that of sexologist Patricia Weerakoon, whose statements in support of traditional marriage were investigated by Sydney University – did not separate these categories.

“I was appalled to learn about the sacking of Karen Pack,” LGBTIQ activist and academic Rodney Croome told Compass. “She was a committed Christian who gave a lot to that school community. It was devastating to hear that story, but I was also not surprised. I know of far too many teachers who are LGBTIQ who are discriminated against and sacked from faith-based schools around Australia.”

“I know of far too many teachers who are LGBTIQ who are discriminated against and sacked from faith-based schools around Australia.” – Rodney Croome

Bible and theological colleges are different from schools in one fundamental respect – they train pastors and ministers. Training ministers is key to the survival of churches and other religions’ congregations.

The cliché has it that the church is only one generation away from disappearing, and like the best clichés, it is correct. The ability of religious primary and secondary schools to preference staff who reflect their faith is critical – but it ranks one rung below in a hierarchy of religious freedom needs.

The aim here is not to dismiss the case for schools’ freedom to hire but to point out that it is more critical to preserve the liberty to train the next generation of ministers according to the faith convictions of each denomination.

Inside Morling

Part of the religious freedom debate has led to religious bodies tightening their statements of faith. Morling was no exception. The contract was tighter when the college offered Pack a second teaching job.

Pack told the ABC, “I responded by saying, ‘Look, I’m very happy to affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman, that that is a sacred and a beautiful thing. I have no problem affirming that. What you need to understand is that’s not the limit of what I affirm. That’s not the only thing that recognises and reflects the beauty and the sacredness of God.’ And they accepted that, and were happy to have me sign the contract and continue on staff.”

The contract she signed when she took her latest job with the College binds employees to:

• Affirm your belief in the College Statement of Beliefs and its Community Code
• “Conduct yourself in a way that is consistent” with both documents
• Participate fully in the spiritual life of the College
• Maintain active involvement in a church
• Notify the principal if you are unable or have failed to do any of the above points.

This revised contract appears to set up clear and enforceable rules that are just about watertight. In addition to sections on respect for others and academic ethics, the College Community Code forbids “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman”.

Similarly, the NSW and ACT Baptist common values list “Honouring marriage as an institution created by God as the foundation for a lifelong faithful union of a man and a woman”.

It is not clear who Pack spoke to at that point, but she tells Eternity that after the employment contract was toughened, “I made sure that those to whom I reported knew that I am gay and in a relationship.”

It was not until Pack was informed of a nasty email that had been sent to the College that she asked for a meeting with the principal, Ross Clifford. They had a conversation that resulted in Pack leaving. Eternity has seen the emails – which simply discuss details of her leaving, such as the college continuing to pay her and references.

“Outing” someone for being LGBTIQA is something most people will wish to avoid. At least some of the people in the College are likely to have felt they would not want to be the one to set in train the sacking of a colleague. Others who knew Pack’s situation might simply have wanted to support her.

A different vision

Eternity asked Pack how a theological college might handle dissent. “If asked to teach doctrine you might disagree with, how should you or a college handle this?”

She responded that she did her Master of Divinity at Regent College under pillars of the evangelical theological community who held a wide spectrum of opinions on a range of issues. Faculty members included J.I. Packer, Gordon Fee, Hans Boersma, Rikk Watts, Iain Provan, Sarah Williams, and John Stackhouse.

“The practice at Regent was to have faculty members who had opposing views on an issue to have a public lecture or conversation in which they would outline their views and discuss their differences,” she said.

“They were intellectual powerhouses, and they were friends. And these were not small issues. It was things like complementarianism vs egalitarianism; whether Christians could get divorced; what the cross achieved (atonement theory); the role of women in the church; Calvinism, and alternative understandings of predestination and election. They did this with vigorous scholarship, humility and grace.

“I also had the incredible joy and privilege of being taught by Prof. J.I. Packer in the setting of a small seminar class of just seven or eight students. The subject was Atonement Theory and the entire semester was devoted to exploring the different ways in which what was achieved by Christ’s life, death and resurrection had been understood throughout church history. J.I. himself was adamant that the best way to understand this was penal substitutionary atonement, but he taught us (and had us write about, explain and articulate) the whole compass of views. At Regent, the worst thing you could do was to set up a ‘straw man argument’, in which you give a caricature of a different viewpoint in order to easily knock it down.

“I also had the incredible joy and privilege of being taught by Prof. J.I. Packer.” – Karen Pack

“This was the same approach I experienced with Prof. John Stackhouse in Apologetics and Prof. Ross Hastings in Pastoral Ethics (both of whom discussed sexual and gender identity and how a Christian should respond to people struggling with this). They were clear, thorough and fair both in explaining their own views and the alternatives.”

Regent College is an evangelical college in Vancouver that has attracted a very high-quality faculty. However, the College is conservative on same-sex issues. It is unlikely that Karen Pack, as good an academic as she is, would get a job on the Regent teaching staff.

The virtue of teaching a variety of views with respect is ideal. Regent does so as Pack vividly describes, and one would hope that the liberal Vancouver School of Theology across town would do the same.

Pack envisages a college that could be a great place to study, but is it the only sort of college that should exist? The differences between a public university and a seminary come into play. The issue is whether institutions should be able to have a point of view, doctrinal distinctives, and in the case of a seminary, follow the tenets of a denomination.

The Sex Discrimination Act

The driving force behind the RDB abandoned by the Morrison government was to place protection against religious discrimination on the same level as rules against discrimination due to sex or race.

In the absence of such a law, exemptions were built into the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA). Section 37 carves out religious institutions that train priests or ministers, letting Catholic institutions train only men to the priesthood, for example.

Section 38 gives, “Educational institutions established for religious purposes” the ability to discriminate in appointing staff and contract workers “in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.” At present, these educational institutions can discriminate in a similar manner against students. An amendment removing this provision from Labor had support from Liberal MPs in the House of Representatives who crossed the floor.

Chief campaigners for the RDB argued that the exemptions in the SDA could be left until after a lengthy investigation. They attempted to claim the SDA exemptions were on a different topic. But the risk was always that the parliament would examine the SDA exemptions as they debated religious discrimination and those religious institutions would lose their protections, despite what the RDB might give them.

The head of one sizeable religious college said he told RDB advocates that they were opening Pandora’s Box – he could see that the SDA exemptions, including Section 37, could easily be examined in the RDB debate. And they were.

Inevitably, confusions between theological colleges and schools entered the debate – and Karen Pack’s story was at the centre.

Equality Australia’s submission to the RDB inquiry had a bet both ways. Karen Pack was included in a trio of stories of women who suffered through discrimination – Pack’s leaving Morling, Stephenie Lentz being sacked from Covenant Christian School and Rachel Colvin required to hold a traditional marriage view by a Christian school. Equality Australia described all three cases as unacceptable discrimination.

“These cases show the real need for reform to religious exemptions that currently allow faith-based organisations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and insist that their employees, students and clients agree with every single religious belief – including on matters of sexuality and gender – in order to keep their job or access their services,” it said.

“These laws are not fair, and they are applied inconsistently and unreasonably so that faith-based organisations can selectively fire, expel or refuse services to LGBTQ+ people and the people who affirm them. In some cases, doctrines are updated on the run, and imposed retrospectively on people who are already contributing faithfully to the work of these organisations.”

In the same submission, Equality Australia called for “standard exemptions [to be] provided to allow the appointment and training of religious leaders and members of a religious order, and the appointment of persons to participate in religious worship and observance (consistent with the SDA, and laws in Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT, NT and WA, and to a degree in NSW and SA).”

But also to “remove existing exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) allowing religious bodies and educational institutions to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, among others.”

To this observer, the Equality Australia submission is confused about whether or not the example of Morling College and Karen Pack lies in the zone where seminaries can make sure staff follow the tenets of the church that sponsors the College.

Four ways to live

In public media, Karen Pack has been the most prominent of the three women whose story is outlined in the Equality Australia submission. Understandably the focus is on her story of losing a job and discrimination against LGBTIQ people by religious bodies. As a historian of religion, Pack is aware of how this issue is playing out in many denominations.

One such example is the 50-year turmoil in the 12 million-strong United Methodist Church (UMC). In 1972 homosexual practice was declared incompatible with Christian teaching in the UMC Book of Discipline. Since then, there have been attempts to overturn it at 12 general Conventions – the worldwide gatherings of its peak council.

The existence of conservative incompatibilist churches is at stake.

In that church, the language of “progressive” and “conservative” are neutral terms used to summarise the positions for and against full LGBTIQA inclusion in the UMC (same-gender weddings and ministers). But many UMC people find the language of “compatibilist” and “incompatibilist” useful too. “Compatibilists” believe both “sides'” should be able to live together. Incompatibilists, conservative or progressive, believe only people on their side should be in church.

The existence of conservative incompatibilist churches is at stake. This category includes conservative Anglican dioceses such as Sydney, the Catholics, Baptists in at least several states, and just about all Pentecostals.

Discernment required

Critics of conservative religion, such as Keith Mascord, a former Moore College lecturer who argues that evangelical thought changes over time, and is therefore unstable, have a point when it comes to the LGBTIQ issue. At least in part. It is unlikely that any church, however conservative, sits exactly where its forebears sat on this issue a generation ago.

That is concerning the law. Conservative churches are not calling for homosexuality to be criminalised, although, in the early 1970s, evangelicals opposed the removal of criminal penalties for male homosexuality.

It is unlikely that any church, however conservative, sits exactly where its forebears sat on this issue a generation ago.

South Australia was the first state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975, Tasmania the last state in 1997. Those laws specified sentences of 14 years in prison or for life, but these were reduced over time. When NSW decriminalised homosexuality in 1984, the Crimes Act fixed five-year prison terms.

The late Michael Ovey of Oak Hill College (a London equivalent to Moore College) told Eternity of how Western evangelicals in the conservative GAFCON movement aimed to persuade African Anglican sisters and brothers not to support draconian anti-LGBTIQA laws.

There has been a pattern of these laws being brought forward in countries such as Uganda, with evidence of US evangelical support, but the opposition by other evangelicals such as GAFCON has been less reported.

Another issue – whether aged-care facilities should be open to all – was settled in 2013 when the Gillard government changed the regulations, although evangelical providers opposed the change. It is unlikely they would today.

Australian Anglicanism’s commitment to a conservative stance will be tested at this year’s General synod church parliament in May.

But conservative Christians have maintained a consistent stance on other key issues such as the ability of churches to maintain Bible-based standards for leaders. This issue has caused church realignments in some cases. The 2003 acceptance of LGBTIQ ministers in the Uniting Church also led to networks such as Crosslinks for churches that departed, while evangelical networks continued within. Australian Anglicanism’s commitment to a conservative stance will be tested at this year’s General synod church parliament in May.

The shift has been profound from seeking to persuade society to uphold a Christian viewpoint – assuming that the old anti-gay laws reflected that – to maintaining a minority Christian presence. The lesson from this history is the ability to train ministers according to a church’s teaching is a key existential issue.

A focus on the ability of tertiary educational institutions to train ministers will be critical when the RDB debate continues after the federal election. The reform of the SDA exemptions will continue to be front and centre.

Working on generosity

The tension between religion and people disadvantaged by it, such as Karen Pack, won’t be easily resolved. But Pack herself does not want Morling and similar colleges to be shut down or forced to change.

Eternity asked, “Should ‘conservative incompatibilist’ institutions (churches and tertiary colleges) exist?”

“They do exist, and I have not tried to shut them down. I have tried to start a conversation about how we can live centred on Christ even when we disagree,” she said.

“I am interested in engaging them in conversation about how to care for those in their midst who are LGBTQ or those who are (through searching Scripture and their personal or pastoral interactions with others) becoming LGBTQ affirming.

“I am interested in talking about how we might agree to disagree without claiming the right to ‘cancel’ someone’s salvation.” – Karen Pack

“I am interested in talking about how we might agree to disagree without claiming the right to ‘cancel’ someone’s salvation. I am interested in talking about how the way this conversation is playing out is affecting the testimony of the church and our capacity to proclaim and live the good news. I am interested in the pastoral care and whole-person welfare of those within such institutions who find themselves wrestling with their sexuality or their doctrinal interpretation of those issues.”

From the other side of the fence, evangelicals and Pentecostals should be willing to take similar responsibility for how the conversation plays out in a community more likely to be sceptical of the conservative point of view. And no matter how strongly a conservative theology is taught at a college, there will be students who disagree and those who find themselves LGBTIQA.

The challenge for conservative Christians will be to balance our desire to be left alone to practise what we believe and do it in a way that is as generous as possible. Let our orthodoxy be generous, welcoming and adventurous, with truth served with grace, even under pressure.