Andrew Thorburn, Essendon and the toleration of religion

In 1689, the British philosopher John Locke published his famous A Letter Concerning Toleration, which argued that an alternative to religious sectarianism and political persecution was the toleration of those who dissent from the state and even the majority of the population in matters of religion and politics. Locke had in mind the Protestant-Catholic divide that caused wars, violence, and unrest.

Yet Locke’s essay was a seminal contribution to what would one day become liberal democracy. Liberalism includes the idea that minorities must be protected from the majority and the state should not silence or coerce dissenters in matters of conscience or religion.

The cornerstone of liberal democracy is tolerance, the ability to live with differences, a willingness to allow people to hold unpopular opinions, and a determination to protect minorities from the mob.

Australia has historically been a liberal democracy, a land of all faiths and none, a place of the fair go for everyone, where you are allowed to talk back to authority.

Religion and football

Liberal notions of tolerance have this week been assaulted by the dismissal of Andrew Thorburn as CEO of Essendon Football Club after serving in the role for less than one day.

Thorburn is a former NAB CEO and is also the Chairman and member of Melbourne’s City on a Hill Church.

City on a Hill is an Anglican church with traditional views of marriage, family, and sexuality which are out of sync with politically progressive urban culture.

Thorburn’s role at City on a Hill and the church’s previous sermons about same-sex attraction and abortion were noted by several media outlets, which led to outrage in several sectors, notably by Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews and City of Port Phillip Mayor Tim Baxter.

City on a Hill has been accused of having “actively worked against LGBTI people,” though apart from existing and holding traditional Christian views, it is pretty hard to see how this amounts to actively working against anyone. In a strange irony, City on a Hill pastors have been accused by American Christian nationalists of being “woke” because of the senior pastor’s pastoral sensitivity towards transgendered people.

The fact that these sermons and articles by City on a Hill were delivered prior to Thorburn joining the church did not matter.

The fact that Thorburn has never said or done anything injurious to LGBTIQ people did not matter.

The fact that Thorburn has a track record of promoting an inclusive and tolerant work environment at NAB did not assuage any criticism of him.

The fact that Thorburn explicitly stated that the church’s views do not necessarily represent his own and he affirmed his commitment to a respectful and supportive workplace, did nothing to call off the manic attacks against him for his religious affiliation.

In the end, Thorburn was judged guilty by religious association!

Essendon President Dave Barham, said: “The board made clear that, despite these not being views that Andrew Thorburn has expressed personally and that were also made prior to him taking up his role as chairman, he couldn’t continue to serve in his dual roles at the Essendon Football Club and as chairman of City on the Hill.”

Thorburn was given an ultimatum, resign from City on a Hill, or resign as CEO of Essendon.

Thorburn, man of deep faith, resigned as CEO.

While many believe that Essendon protected its commitment to inclusivity, we now have a dangerous precedent whereby a person can be dismissed from a job, not because of anything they did or said but simply because of their religious affiliation.

Multiculturalism is messy

Australia is a multicultural country. We are land of many languages, ethnicities, cuisines, tribes, and peoples. We are country of all faiths and none. We believe in the fair go for everyone.

What has made Australia a successful multicultural country is our commitment to tolerance. That includes tolerance of sexual minorities, ethnic groups, and religion.

Yet multiculturalism is conflictual because it brings people with differences into proximity with each other. We have different understandings of the role of government, different ethical systems, different beliefs about marriage and family, or different understandings of what should be the common good. Even among progressives there are different views about feminism and transgenderism, models of socialism, and how to respond to climate change.

Tolerance does not mean the absence of debate and division, but the ability of people with differences to live side-by-side together without seeking to harm each other.

We have reached a point now where, if you do not accept one vision of tolerance, one version of reality, one way of operating as a society, then you must be punished. Whether that is about same-sex marriage, abortion, women’s rights to women-only spaces – all of which are contested issues with people of good faith arguing on both sides – debate is muzzled and dissent is silenced.

True, no freedom is absolute, whether freedoms of speech, religion, or association. But unless the detriment caused by one’s speech, religion, or association is demonstrably and directly harmful, then freedoms of speech, religion, and association should be protected as sacrosanct.

We now have as a norm the dangerous idea that tolerance means eradicating all dissenters. As if tolerance and inclusivity, by some specious form of reasoning, means forcing a Muslim woman to wear a rainbow-coloured pride-jersey or expelling a Jewish man from a club for holding Israeli citizenship.

This so-called new tolerance bears the unmistakable marks of the old tyrannical intolerance that John Locke first wrote against.

Culturally popular but legally perilous

Nobody should be forced to choose between their job and their religion. Yet here we are!

Consequently, in another strange irony, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Ro Allen, who is supposed to be in the business of preventing religious-based discrimination, has come out in favour of Essendon and against Thorburn.

Yet things might not be quite so clear-cut.

Thorburn resigned but under duress.

Essendon has even affirmed the pressure placed on him to choose between his church and his club.

In a statement their lawyers probably wish they did not make, Essendon President Barham overtly declared that Thorburn was targeted precisely because of his religious associations.

Essendon might have a lot of support from progressive urban elites, but they are on thin legal ground.

Josh Bornstein, an employment lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, told ABC Radio that Thorburn might have been unlawfully discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of his religion.

I hope Thorburn does lodge an anti-discrimination suit against Essendon. Because, if he doesn’t, then we will face the normalising of businesses, organisations, and even governments taking punitive actions against people because of their religious associations.

There is now the real prospect that a person can be sacked from a job, not for anything they said or did but simply because of what house of worship they belong to.

That is intolerant, un-Australian, and violates every anti-discrimination law I can think of.

Rev. Dr. Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He can be found  on twitter @mbird12, blogs at, and is the author of Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government.