ABC News: Giulio Saggin   

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has been pilloried for sending a letter to the heads of Australian companies that had taken out full-page advertisements in major newspapers in June supporting marriage equality.

Over 750 organisations, from major listed companies to some leading universities have added their logos to a highly successful publicity blitz. Pip Marlow, the managing director of Microsoft Australia, has become the poster girl for the campaign.

The CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, who is gay himself, says “now the entire aviation and banking sectors are on that ad. So if you’re not comfortable with that, you can’t fly and you can’t bank in Australia.”

The Church had rightly criticised the corporates for “overstepping their purpose”. The letter said, “For corporations to speak on such issues… is indeed overstepping their purpose and it is to be strongly resisted.”

However, with little power to take action against corporates which support same-sex marriage, the Church looks like a toothless tiger.  One article in Australia’s flagship business newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, taunted: “Beyond sending the letter, the Catholic church (sic) has no clear plan on what it intends to do about those businesses who (sic) have come out in support of same sex marriage.”

However, this misses the point. It would be quixotic for the Church to imagine it could get the faithful to switch credit card providers from, say, MasterCard which was one of the companies that participated in the advertisement. A range of factors play into an individual’s decision on which credit card company to join. The same goes for many of the other businesses that had signed to the advertisement.

Indeed, it was never the Church’s intention to threaten the companies associated with the advertisement. At no point in the letter did the Church issue an “or else” ultimatum to any of the companies. The letter merely sought to point out that those corporations were acting outside of their business purpose by taking a position in what is largely a debate about society, social ethics and morality.

Tellingly, only one company was prepared to respond when contacted by the AFR to defend its decision to not participate in the advertisement. ALDI, the supermarket chain, told the paper it does not “align itself with any discussions or debate outside of the retail landscape”. Other companies that did not support the advertisement, such as 38 of the Australian Stock Exchange’s top 50 listed companies, opted not to respond to the journalist’s inquiries.

This relates to the key issue in the Archdiocese of Sydney’s letter.

Corporates have expertise in specific industries. Wandering beyond their areas of expertise into matters of social ethics and moral debate is a dangerous business. They risk alienating customers and employees who do not share their views.

More poignantly, the corporates that participated in the advertisement were, in the words of Christian Democratic Party leader, the Rev. Fred Nile, suppressing the “beliefs and freedoms to religion, speech and traditions” of those individuals who do not hold to the “cultural expectations” of the corporations.

This should be pondered by corporations which have signed up on the marriage equality agenda. What message are they sending to Catholics, other conservative Christians, conservative Jews, and Muslims amongst their employees? Could they be sued under workplace anti-discrimination laws? As the Rev. Nile told the AFR, “I believe that all corporations must be liable for any detriments caused by their suppressive actions against employees who believe in traditional marriage.”

Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are now very much at risk in the workplace.

Indeed, a number of Australian Catholics known to this writer are fearful of stating their stance on gay marriage at work lest they be called “homophobic”. One Catholic supporter of traditional marriage who works in a management consultancy was excluded from a meeting about endorsing the pro-gay marriage advertisement even though he was a key player. He believes he may have a case of anti-religious discrimination by his employer worth prosecuting.

It’s true that the Catholic Church is unable to initiate a boycott of businesses that have joined the marriage equality bandwagon. But it doesn’t need to take such radical action.

Individual supporters of traditional marriage may have grounds to bring cases of discrimination against employers which have taken a public stand on the issue of gay marriage.

Corporate boards need to ask serious questions about the legal risks the companies have been exposed to by the decision to overstep their corporate purpose and take sides in a divisive debate that goes to the basics of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. That’s what the letter from the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney underlined.

Constance Kong is a business consultant based in Shanghai.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.