CASE TYPE: Jobs under threat for religious expression in the workplace


Jane* is a senior executive in the public service and a committed Christian with over 20 years’ experience at her organisation. Her organisation is integrally involved in the field of human rights. One day in 2019, as Jane entered a meeting room for a regular management meeting, Jane joined a pre-meeting conversation between colleagues that was discussing the rugby player Israel Folau, who was in the news for being fired from the Australian national rugby team because of a religious personal social media post that was allegedly “homophobic”. In this conversation, the general tenor of the conversation was mocking of Israel Folau and his religious opinions regarding homosexuality.


Jane felt uncomfortable with the scorn and derision that was being directed at Folau, and gently challenged her colleagues advising that many people, including Jane, believed Folau was exercising his human rights to freedom of speech and religion. Jane highlighted to her colleagues that they were using the same kind of offensive language and tones to mock Folau for his religious views as racists and bigots use to mock others. This particularly grieved Jane as her organisation was supposed to be an example of justice and tolerance. How could an organisation make judgements on justice when its own members were deeply prejudiced against people with conservative Christian views?


Previously, in meeting room conversation, her colleagues had also been critical and disparaging of Australian tennis legend Margaret Court about her stance on gay marriage and Jane had made known that she supported Margaret Court.


Because of the issue of same-sex marriage, Israel Folau and Margaret Court have been topics of conversations in Jane’s workplace, her colleagues are aware that she supports the rights of Folau and Court to express their religious ideas, and that Jane, a Christian, agrees with those views, even though Jane never makes an issue of such things in her workplace.


After her defence of Folau’s rights to freedom of speech and religion, Jane’s colleagues complained to the senior management that Jane’s comments in support of Israel Folau made then feel unsafe and alleged that they amounted to workplace bullying. Jane was called into a meeting with her manager and with a human resources officer where Jane was told that her comments might breach the organisation’s commitment to diversity, tolerance and inclusion. Jane stated that she considered her views to be reasonable and unthreatening.


No one has ever complained directly to Jane but the unresolved issue continued to cause tension amongst Jane’s colleagues. In mid-2019, the chief executive of the organization proposed that the matter be taken to an “off site” management meeting where parties could clear the air. Jane was reluctant to go to a meeting where all her colleagues would gang up on her for her religious convictions which she had expressed politely and reasonably.


Throughout Jane felt excluded and unwelcome from her workplace, whose senior management were to a large extent hostile to her views. Jane felt immense pressure to leave. After first being offered a redundancy, Jane has since taken a secondment to another public service job in a different organisation.

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