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  • Chris Vlahonasios

Not simply black & White: violating human rights for ‘love’



The Australian public was promised that same-sex marriage (SSM) would not interfere or encroach on the rights of others. It was about ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, ‘love’ and nothing else. Unfortunately, this goodwill has quickly soured. Given that the Federal Parliament is currently discussing new anti-discrimination laws that will affect the rights of religious schools, a recent incident has raised concerns for the rights of all Australian citizens, especially Christians. White, an Australian-based bridal magazine posted a Farewell Letter on their website announcing they would be closing down after 12 years of operation. Not due to any commercial mismanagement, but because they choose not to feature same-sex couples in its publications as they felt such marriages contravened their Christian beliefs.

Over the last several months, a consistent and vicious online campaign was launched targeting the owners, their staff, advertisers and even couples who appeared in the magazine. The company was vilified on Instagram and a Facebook group of over 500 wedding professionals pressured White to make its stance on SSM clear with 100 members boycotting the magazine.[1] Many feel the forced closure of White is a victory for a more equitable and open society; however, this shows little understanding of the ramifications for democracy and individual liberty.

This recent example is only the beginning of many future cases where multiple rights of individuals will be trampled upon despite lawfully exercising their pre-existing rights and freedoms. Although Australia does not have a Bill of Rights, it is a signatory to several international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). And though Australia has very few expressed rights in its Constitution, it does have many pieces of legislation that reflect these freedoms. Yet, there are limitations so as to balance everyone’s rights, however, upon examining the real-life story of White, will our rights really be equally protected?

Right to the freedom of opinion and expression

White has the right to say, depict and creatively express themselves through their publications without inference (Article 19 ICCPR). The issue was not that White said anything derogatory or discriminatory about SSM, they just choose not to depict it.

Many of the magazine’s opponents claimed White was discriminating against same-sex couples, but this is incorrect for several reasons. One, no-one can expect all diversity to be shown in a publication; two, same-sex couples were not prohibited from buying the magazine or using any of the services advertised; three, White had the creative licence to pick-and-choose the couples and stories that matched with their branding and artistic expression. This right extends to commercial advertising. There is no law, currently, that states compulsory depiction of gender diversity. Such a law would be unfair and interfere with the creative process.

More so, opponents of White should be more concerned with their actions online. Anyone associated with White experienced bullying, offensive language, slander, harassment, defamation and hate speech towards his or her personal beliefs. Though the opponents do have the right to express their opinions, it is expressly stated under Article 19(3)(a) that through their freedom to express they must also “respect the rights or reputations of others”, that applies to White’s owners.

Furthermore, Article 19(2) makes a very important statement which concerns the rights of readers of the magazine: “[the] freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. This means the public can freely chose to subscribe or not to White’s views. If someone disapproves of the magazine’s ideas, they are free to find another publication.

Freedom of religion/conscience

Under Article 18 of ICCPR all persons have the right to think freely, and to entertain ideas and hold positions based on their conscience, religion or other beliefs. The owners made it clear in their Farewell message that although their publication was a secular one, they were Christians. To label oneself a Christian is not simply an identity but the very essence of who they are and what guides their thought-process. This means exercising those beliefs or ideas through observance and practice, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others or public health and safety: Article 18(3) ICCPR.

It is the position of most Christian churches, especially the Orthodox Church, that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Though the Church may not be able to enforce this position across Australia, it and its congregations are permitted to practice this belief without hindrance. The publishers of White were simply expressing their Christian faith through their business and creative works. White was not physically prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying nor were they writing articles against SSM. A citizen does not have to agree or adopt any beliefs – theistic or otherwise – they can freely ignore them and move on to something else. The owners never used their magazine to incite religious-based hatred or violence towards the LGBTI community. They operated their business, like every other aspect of their lives, with a Christian phronema.


Legality of boycotting

Though most of the Facebook group said they did not want to boycott the company, at least 100 did. Though it is not illegal to boycott a company in Australia – as permitted under s45DD – there are limitations.

Under s45D(1) of the Commonwealth’s Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (CCA) prevents actions of others to hinder or prevent a third person (i.e. wedding professionals) from supplying goods and services (photos, stories or payment for advertising) to another person/corporation (owners of White). Though the Facebook group did not do this through physical means, it instead generated a negative image of White and all their associated advertisers. Under s45D(1)(b) it must be shown the boycott was done for the purpose of causing substantial loss or damage to the business. The attention generated online resulted in advertisers fearing the loss of potential jobs and being ostracised by the wedding business community. As a result, they distanced themselves and opt-out of the magazine. As stated in their Farewell Letter, the magazine said it was “no longer economically viable” having lost too many advertisers. This online assault was the most effective means to inflict commercial ruin. Potential wedding clients and professionals avoided the magazine where, before this campaign, they would have dealt with White.

It should be noted the types of boycotts permitted under s45DD concern conduct relating to employment matters, environmental protection or consumer protection. The reasons behind this organised boycott did not satisfy any of these exceptions. Reasons of ‘inclusive’ and supposed ‘bigotry’ are not legally valid reasons. This was a malicious and illegal campaign to destroy a small business that simply did not share the same ideas and beliefs of others, despite having the freedom to do so.

Right to work

This right is found in Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Each signatory country grants “the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.” This obligation is to encourage and protect the individual’s right to choose work he/she deems worthy. The owners and staff at White chose to work in the wedding industry and though there have been some seismic shifts in cultural attitudes, it should be an industry that accepts and tolerates people from diverse backgrounds who want to acquire a living.

Operating in a free marketplace, White should never have been forced out. This is contrary to society’s desire for greater inclusiveness and diversity. In fact, s3 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) sets out its objective to, among other things, “promote national economic prosperity and social inclusion for all Australians”. This suggests a national workplace where people of all backgrounds can work together towards a wealthy Australia. By eliminating the competition there is less diversity in the wedding industry and several people are out of work, all because their spiritual beliefs did not gel with the ‘new world’ of marital bliss.

Free commerce

More an economic principle of living in a democratic society than a right, the ability to freely operate a commercial business should be permissible without hindrance, as long as what is offered is not illegal or harmful to others. White never offered dangerous or illegal goods and services; they just had an unpopular viewpoint. Unless they breached one of the anti-discrimination laws or Consumer Law Acts, the shutdown of White was an unfair assault on the ability to operate a lawful business.

Freedom from fear

Opponents said it was about transparency to know where White stood on SSM.[2] This was a relevant question, as White was in the business of weddings. The same would apply to a company that claims to only use environmentally-friendly products but refuses to acknowledge how much. However, the difference is the owners were hesitant because of the backlash their personal beliefs may cause and how it would affect their business.

The introductions of both ICCPR and ICESCR state:

“In accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights.”

No-one should feel intimidated or threatened because of the beliefs or ideas they hold. The truth is White was fearful because from these rights – which extend to owning a business, living as Christians, being creative, holding citizenship, ability to vote – none were being properly respected to afford them protection. So, if none of the above-mentioned rights were being protected, how could they be honest with their readers?


1 Corinthians 13

Finally, it is worth noting what the owners thought ‘love’ meant, as their industry is built on it and was a term used regularly during the plebiscite. At the end of White’s Farwell Letter, the owners included a section from 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 which gave a stark contrast between love as found in the Bible and the world’s idea of ‘love’. To keep it short, verses 4 to 8 are reproduced to summarise what love means for a Christian:

“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”[3]

When one contemplates this passage, it puts to shame the behaviour of White’s opponents and to what extent their understanding of ‘love’ differs.

Conclusion

Just because White did not depict same-sex couples, it did not discriminate against their rights or limit their access to goods or services. The owners obeyed all the laws of the land. White did not incite hatred or violence. They had the freedom of conscience to decide what they believed was right, which was to follow the way of Christ. Paradoxically, by enforcing ‘inclusiveness’, society is contradictory reducing the amount of diversity. Though there may be a massive push to rid society of all forms of discrimination, it needs to be balanced against the rights entitled to each and every human being.

It is crucial as Australian Christians to understand what happened in this case so if the day arises when our livelihoods and ourselves are jeopardised, we will know our legal rights.

* To read White’s Farewell Letter in full, go to whitemag.com

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[1] www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/white-magazine-faces-backlash/10186834 , Ange McCormack, 31 August 2018

[2] Ibid, above.

[3] Translation from the Orthodox Study Bible.

#culture #socialmedia #media #internet #Christianity #freedomofspeech #discrimination #society #Australia #humanrights

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