Consider the following story: the refusal of a Christian school to train a Muslim teaching student. Rachida Dahlal, of Victoria University, was knocked back on her application to undergo work experience at Heathdale Christian College on the grounds of her faith. The university’s acting vice-chancellor pointed out that Mrs Dahlal, a devout Muslim who wears the hijab, had already been ‘counselled’ about Heathdale’s policy of ‘taking those whose values aligned to its own’, while school principal Reynald Tibben rather contradictingly stated that the school’s position was not that they had ‘anything against her or her beliefs’, but rather that their education policy was ‘nominal, it’s actually what parents want for their kids’, and that hiring a Muslim teacher would have been both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘confusing’ for students.
For those who might question Mrs Dahlal’s choice of Heathdale to begin with, her decision was based on the proximity of the school to her home, and its position as one of few institutions offering both French and mathematics, her specialty subjects. Given also that it was her choice, and made in full knowledge of the school’s denomination, Principal Tibben’s guff about her likely discomfort during morning prayers seems frankly condescending. Would he have been so concerned about hiring an atheist? Would a Jewish applicant have been equally off-limits? In Mr Tibben’s eyes, would the presence of such people have proven similarly ‘confusing’ to students? Or is it just the fact that Mrs Dahlal’s faith is visible through her hijab, and not merely an internal ideology? More and more, it seems, society is struggling with the notion of discrimination; but what this case exemplifies – and yet what few people are willing to acknowledge – is that any set of beliefs associated with a specific ideal is, by definition, discriminatory.
This is not something we can legislate away. The vast majority of human interactions are predicated on conflict: disagreements over a favourite film, the appropriate price of food, who has the greatest claim to which resources, which is the best way to discipline children, how the universe began. At the far end of the scale are grandoise religious and philosophical abstractions, while at the other are trivial matters, debates that no sane person would try to legalise. But the middle regions are often indistinct, a blend of all such concerns, and it is here we live our lives. Politically, socially, sexually and legally, we have moved forwards in recent decades, making headway against racism, sexism, homophibia, explotation of children and religio-cultural discrimination; and yet despite its presence at the forefront of many such debates – if not all of them – the discrimination inherent in religious systems has remained the elephant in the room.
Put simply: if a person believes that their own religion is unshakeably correct to the exclusion of all other systems, and then refuses to hire a worker on the grounds that they are living outside of God’s rule and will set a bad example to other employees, passing a law to prevent them from doing so becomes tantamount to declaring that the logic which underpins their faith is wrong. The same thing lies at the heart of all the legislative drama over gay marriage: how do you allow someone freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring that certain of their religious or ideological tenets constitute a violation of human rights? There’s not an easy answer. But to anyone who believes in the separation of church and state, different religious beliefs should be equally accommodated – or refused – under the law, be they derived from shari’a, the Talmud or the Bible. Defending the values of one faith on the basis of its historical relationship to the nation is neither objective nor helpful: instead, it only serves to embed a lopsided definition of discrimination and entitlement in our cultural identity.
Which brings us back to Heathdale Christian College, and the reason why, in our secular state, Reynald Tibben should be found to have acted wrongly: because although a fair state must allow the existence of both secular and denominational schools, it should have no vested interest in preventing overlap between the two. Just as state schools hire teachers of all faiths, so too should their denominational equivalents. The difference between such institutions should be purely a matter of extra religious instruction, not the individual disposition of their teachers. Because if things are otherwise – if we state that a school has the right to hire or fire teachers on the basis of their personal values – then we may as well say that other Christian principals are equally within their grounds to fire teachers for apostasy, for expressing agnosticism or for religious conversion. The fact that Mrs Duhlal practises Islam does not affect her ability to speak French or teach mathematics, just as the Christianity of her students should not affect their ability to learn. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to please everyone. At the most basic level, discrimination simply means choice: to differentiate between one thing and another. We load the word with negative connotations, conflating it with prejudice in all instances, but saying that our society disciminates against racism is just as valid a useage as complementing someone on their discriminating taste. Because discrimination, be it deemed neutural, positive or negative, figures equally in choice, legislation and religion alike. And the sooner we start to confront that fact, the better for all of us.