To form a society we must create the glue that binds us together. We used to do that through a shared religion: the word religion, comes from the Latin ligere, to bind together, and re, to rebind together. This glue consists of the values, attitudes, beliefs, stories and so on from which we create an overarching story that we tell each other and all buy into.

In a multicultural, secular society, such as Australia, religion can no longer fulfil that essential function of binding us together. “Secular religions” have emerged to takeover this role of traditional religion. I suggest that in Australia, the national “secular religion” is sport.

Recent turmoil in the sports world has centred on the values, beliefs and attitudes of those involved, whether as players, officials and administrators, owners of teams, donors, or club members. Australian examples include reaction to rugby player Israel Folau’s disparaging comments, based on his religious beliefs, about homosexuality; Gina Reinhart’s company, Hancock Prospecting, withdrawing funding from Netball Australia because players did not want to be associated with the company founder’s racist attitudes; Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins raising ethical concerns with Cricket Australia about a major sponsor Alinta Energy’s climate impact; the Fremantle Dockers AFL team reportedly facing calls to remove oil and gas company Woodside Energy as its major sponsor; and Andrew Thorburn being forced to step down as CEO of the Essendon AFL club, because of his religious affiliation.

At the base of all these incidents is a conflict of values, which is a hallmark of the contemporary “culture wars”. Sport has become an arena where everyone involved is seen as a bearer of values for the society as a whole. The problem is we don’t all agree what those values should be and those who disagree with certain values do not want to participate in affirming or promoting those, whether directly or indirectly, for example, by having logos on their team uniforms or a CEO of their club who is associated with a certain religious stance or even participating in an event in a country that does not respect human rights. The recent video by Socceroo team members playing in the World Cup in Qatar protesting human rights breaches by the host country is an unprecedented example of the latter.

Analysis of the Thorburn case can be instructive in regard to understanding and dealing with these difficult situations and for lessons and warnings.

The Thorburn case

Andrew Thorburn was forced to choose between continuing to serve as the chairman of an Anglican church, City on the Hill, and being CEO of the Essendon AFL Club, because the two organisations have conflicting values regarding homosexuality and abortion. His Church teaches that homosexual sex and abortion are sinful. “Progressive” values adherents, allege these teachings constitute wrongful discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and a breach of women’s human rights, respectively.

The Essendon Football Club, which espouses values of “inclusiveness”, decided that this raised a values conflict for Mr Thorburn that could only be resolved by his choosing between his role in the Church and his employment as CEO. He chose the former.

This incident raises issues of alleged conflict between respect for Mr Thorburn’s rights to freedom of speech and belief, and of religion, and homosexual persons’ and women’s rights against wrongful discrimination. How should this conflict be resolved?

Understanding the essence of the disagreement

One problem is that the LGBTIQA+ community automatically alleges discrimination by people who do not agree with their values. For example, opposition to same-sex marriage is automatically equated to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and the person holding that view is labelled homophobic and bigoted, regardless of the reasons for their opposition.

That is, the LGBTQIA+ community argues one cannot be both anti-same sex marriage and anti-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as I am.

Analogies are made by the LGBTQIA+ community to discrimination on the basis of race, which has rightly been recently highlighted as seriously wrongful discrimination in sport, especially prevalent in AFL football. It is argued that just as race cannot be changed neither can homosexual orientation and, therefore, exclusion of homosexual couples from marriage is automatically discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Before proceeding, let me be clear: I believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (or race) is a very serious breach of human rights and must not be tolerated. The issue is, however, when is such wrongful discrimination present. I propose that in the context of same-sex marriage that depends on the reasons the person is against this.

Marriage establishes rights of both adults and children, because it carries the right to found a family (Article 16 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights). When limited to opposite-sex spouses, it establishes children’s rights to both a mother and a father, if at all possible, their own biological parents.

Same-sex marriage, in giving this right to found a family to same-sex couples, necessarily cancels these rights of children. That was my reason for arguing against same-sex marriage, but for “judicial unions” with the same protections for the partners as marriage and open to everyone, because the latter do not affect children’s rights.

Moreover, giving the right to found a family to same-sex couples raises difficult ethical issues beyond the individual adults and children involved. These range from the everyday domestic situations of adoption by and foster care placement of children with same-sex couples, to avant garde and international ones involving commercial surrogacy, access to assisted reproductive technologies, and so on.

So, what might we learn from Andrew Thorburn’s case?

First, it shows confusion between beliefs and conduct, in that the Football Club seems simply to assume that if, for instance, Mr Thorburn believes that homosexuality is immoral, he would act unacceptably and discriminate against homosexual people. There are many instances where we hold different beliefs as to the morality of certain sexual conduct, as, for instance, “open marriage” or “swingers clubs”, which some people justify as saving their marriage.

We would not be justified in discriminating against these people in access to employment, simply because their moral beliefs regarding sexual behaviour differed from ours. In short, what constitute for the LGBTQIA+ community unacceptable moral or religious beliefs, such as those Mr Thorburn is assumed to hold, is a separate question from any evidence of wrongful discriminatory conduct on his part on the basis of homosexual orientation or behaviour.

Second, we do not know what Mr. Thorburn’s personal beliefs about homosexuality and abortion are. We only know that his Church spoke against them both in 2013. Assuming he shares those beliefs, we do not know how he would act in relation to them were they relevant to any decision he needed to take as the Essendon Club CEO. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong, just as discrimination on the basis of religion is wrong.

Therefore, the question becomes what constitutes such discrimination and how rights against discrimination should be handled when they are in conflict.

Third, the Club seems to have equated respect with agreement. Everyone has obligations to respect others, but that does not mean we must agree with their values. Such disagreement is not, in itself, disrespect for the person with whom we disagree. In fact, peaceful disagreement is a marker of a mature democracy and mature leaders and citizens. Engaging in respectful disagreement can also lead to wiser and more ethical decisions based on more accurate facts. As an aside, it is encouraging that our new Commonwealth Government has recognised the need for such respect in their deliberations.

Fourth, the choice given to Mr Thorburn, “choose between your religion and your employment contract”, was coercive. My guess is the Essendon Club demanded that choice because it was concerned about backlash that would harm it, including financially. That fear is not unfounded. Boycotts have been increasingly used by the communities who promote “progressive” values on homosexuality, against businesses whose executives do not espouse those values.

That raises the issue of self-censorship, which has become frequent, not only in the commercial world, but also, very worryingly, in universities among both faculty and students. Surveys show that faculty, especially those who hold conservative values, self-censor because of fear of losing their appointments or contracts or of not being promoted or they, or their families, being harassed, if they say what they really believe.

I know from long personal experience that this fear is not unrealistic.

Students with conservative values have this same fear of saying what they really believe. As one student told me, “If I expressed my conservative values, the consequences would be too dire and I would be ostracised by other students”. He was referring to a graduate class, average age around 25 years.

It is not uncommon for younger undergraduate students to say they have never heard the arguments for the more conservative values, but only those for the “progressive” ones on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, transgenderism and so on. They sometimes add that in light of their new knowledge, they will need to think further to decide what position they want to adopt on these controversial ethical issues.

Finally, a value strongly espoused by “progressive” values adherents is tolerance. This is put into practice, however, in the form of “I will tolerate you and your values and views, but only to the extent that I do not disagree with them”. Mr Thorburn’s case is yet one more example of this approach. That should worry all of us, whatever our views or values.

Whatever our views and values, we all urgently need to reduce conflict in our world, not to exacerbate it. That requires all of us, whether we hold “progressive” or conservative values, to practice “moral humility”. That means we must all recognise that we are morally fallible. Then we need to listen carefully to the arguments of those who disagree with us and to try to understand their arguments. And we must think beyond ourselves to a larger reality and ask what we owe to others.

The “progressive” values advocates’ guiding principle of “equality, diversity, inclusion” must be applied to everyone.

This article first appeared in The Australian and has been republished with permission.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...