Sexual orientation and sexual behaviour: can they be distinguished?

Should the employee of a religious organisation be allowed to be dismissed because of her sexual activities outside work? A recent Australian decision suggests, somewhat surprisingly, that she may be. I will explain here why I believe the court was correct. In Bunning v Centacare [2015] FCCA 280 (11 February 2015) an employee of a Catholic family counselling centre was dismissed because of her involvement in support for “polyamorous” activities. She claimed to have been discriminated against on the basis of her sexual orientation, but the claim was dismissed.

Distinguishing between orientation and behaviour- previous cases

By way of background, one of the most difficult issues in the interaction between religious freedom and sexual orientation anti-discrimination law arises when a believer makes a decision which is based on a person’s sexual activity, and it is claimed that in fact the decision was based on sexual “orientation”. This dilemma arises because, unlike most other prohibited grounds of discrimination, “sexual orientation” discrimination involves serious ethical dilemmas for those who adhere to traditional religious beliefs on sexual morality. That is, long-standing religious views (not only in Christianity but also in Islam and Judaism, for example) teach that same sex sexual behaviour is actually wrong, and contrary to God’s purposes for humanity. But one of the defining characteristics of a person who is of a homosexual “orientation” is a preference (to use a possibly controversial word) for sexual activity with a person of the same sex.

Sometimes believers, when challenged that their decisions are based on sexual orientation, have attempted to argue that in fact those decisions are based on sexual behaviour. That is, the claim is made that there is no intention to investigate someone’s personal preferences or “inclination”; but that engaging in what the religion regards as immoral behaviour, homosexual intercourse, can be a legitimate reason for making a distinction of some sort. An argument of this sort was run in the UK decision in Bull & Bull v Hall & Preddy [2013] UKSC 73 (27 November 2013). There the Christian owners of a boarding house had enforced for some years a rule that they would not let a double-bed room to any couple who were not married. A same sex couple were turned away from the room on this basis and sued for sexual orientation discrimination. The UK Supreme Court upheld the award of damages against the Bulls. In particular, they commented at one point as to whether it made a difference that it was the “status of marriage” which was the criterion for the decision, or not. (At the time same sex couples could not marry each other in the UK.) The majority of the court held that this did not make a difference. In particular, Lady Hale commented in this way on the argument that one could distinguish a decision made on the basis of sexual behaviour, from one made on the basis of orientation:

[52] Sexual orientation is a core component of a person’s identity which requires fulfilment through relationships with others of the same orientation. As Justice Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court movingly put it in National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v Minister of Justice, 1999 (1) SA 6, para 117:

“While recognising the unique worth of each person, the Constitution does not presuppose that a holder of rights is an isolated, lonely and abstract figure possessing a disembodied and socially disconnected self. It acknowledges that people live in their bodies, their communities, their cultures, their places and their times. The expression of sexuality requires a partner, real or imagined.”

This view, that sexual orientation requires expression in intercourse, and hence that any distinction based on the behaviour will also be a distinction based on orientation, was also affirmed in a recent Australian decision, Christian Youth Camps Limited v Cobaw Community Health Service Limited and Mark Rowe [2014] VSCA 75 (16 April 2014) (for detailed comment on this case see my previous post and linked articles.) The Court there rejected an argument that in denying a booking to a group that was lobbying for the “normalisation” of homosexuality, the Christian group concerned was not basing its decision on the orientation of the group members, but (impliedly) on their “behaviour” of lobbying for a particular viewpoint. Maxwell P supported comments that had been made by the Tribunal below, which were to the effect that sexual orientation is “part of a person’s being or identity” and that:

To distinguish between an aspect of a person’s identity, and conduct which accepts that aspect of identity, or encourages people to see that part of identity as normal, or part of the natural and healthy range of human identities, is to deny the right to enjoyment and acceptance of identity. (at [57])

(See also Redlich JA:  “sexual orientation [is] inextricably interwoven with a person’s identity” (at [442]).)

Against this background, it is very interesting to find this recent decision that clearly distinguishes between “orientation” and “behaviour”, and finds against a dismissed claimant on these grounds.

Bunning v Centacare

In the Bunning case, Ms Bunning worked in a Catholic family counselling centre in a senior position. (While operating under the “brand” of “Centacare”, the Respondent’s full name from the case documents was “THE CORPORATION OF THE TRUSTEE OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESE OF BRISBANE TRADING AS CENTACARE”, and hence it was clear that Centacare was a direct emanation of the Church.)

The Applicant’s own documents revealed the following (see [7]):

her contact details as a counsellor at Centacare [had been] published on a website for the Brisbane Poly Group. These details had been originally published in or around late 2011, or early 2012, following a request from the group for the contact details of a ‘poly-friendly’ counsellor. The Brisbane Poly Group is a group of people involved and/or interested in the polyamorous lifestyle.

The website details had been brought to the attention of her employer, and on this basis her employment was terminated. Para [11] describes the events in the Applicant’s words:

(e) Furthermore, during the meeting the Applicant was told that the ‘Brisbane Poly Group’ goes against the ethics and moral teachings of the Catholic Church and that such a lifestyle would be in conflict with those teachings.

(f) The Applicant was told that she was to be dismissed instantly for gross misconduct.

The claim under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (“SDA”) was that the Applicant had been dismissed, or else put at a disadvantage, on the basis of her “sexual orientation”, and hence there had been a breach of the Act, s 14. Judge Vasta had to determine whether “being polyamorous” was a relevant sexual orientation. His Honour concluded that it was not. He referred to the Macquarie Dictionary definition of “polyamory” as

“The mating pattern of having a number of sexual partners at the same time” – [41] (emphasis in original)

As such the term referred to a certain type of behaviour. But, his Honour said, the word “orientation” as a “state of being” rather than actual behaviour:

[29] Under the Act, sexual orientation is how one is, rather than how one manifests that state of being. The manifestation of that state of being can take many forms. Those forms are what we know as “sexual behaviour”.

He concluded that the Applicant had shown that she adopted polyamorous behaviour, but had not demonstrated that this was a relevant orientation. In a very interesting passage worth quoting at length, he continued:

[33] In argument before me, the Applicant contends that “behaviour” is a “sub-set” of an orientation and therefore is covered by the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

[34] If the contention of the Applicant were correct, many people whose sexual activity might label them as sado-masochists, coprophiliacs or urophiliacs could claim that such is more than mere behaviour; it is in fact their very sexual orientation. If the contention were correct, then the illegal activities of paedophilia and necrophilia may have the protection of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). Such a result would be an absurdity.

[35] This is because sexual orientation is something far more than how one behaves sexually. Many religious persons take a vow of chastity and do not behave sexually at all. Yet they still can have a sexual orientation under the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. This is because their behaviour does not define their orientation.

Having noted that as a matter of legislative history, Parliament had declined to include “lawful sexual behaviour” as an alternative ground of discrimination, his Honour concluded:

[39]…I am led to the inexorable conclusion that “sexual orientation”, as the term is used in s. 4 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), covers only that which it expressly covers, i.e., the state of being. It does not cover behaviours.

Hence the claim for sexual orientation discrimination failed, as the Applicant had not shown that the basis of the decision was a “condition” or “state of being” recognised under the SDA as a prohibited ground.


The decision in this case is interesting, as previously noted, because it seems to run counter to a tendency in other decisions to treat “orientation” and “behaviour” as interchangeable. It has to be said, however, that the implications of the decision are unclear. The Federal Circuit Court is a successor to the court that was previously called the “Federal Magistrates’ Court”. It is not high up in the Australian court hierarchy, and indeed it seems likely that formally its decisions do not form a precedent for any other courts. The decision here could of course go on appeal to the Federal Court “proper”.

In addition, neither of the judgments noted above, Bull and CYC v Cobaw, seem to have been cited to Judge Vasta. However, it should be noted that the case did not concern the question of “homosexual” orientation, and hence did not directly engage the issues which led to the previous comments. Polyamory, of course, as a formal “lifestyle” (as Judge Vasta noted, the term used by the Applicant herself) is not commonly spoken of as an “orientation”. A claim for discrimination on this basis feels more like a claim for discrimination on the basis of “marital status”, which does indeed focus on behaviour. The definition of “marital status” in s 4(1) of the SDA assumes that there is only one other party to the relationship- see e.g. para (e) “the de facto partner of another person” (emphasis added). Presumably if Parliament had intended to protect persons in multiple relationships, it could easily have referred to “person or persons”.

On balance, it seems that his Honour’s decision is correct. Whether the broadly expressed comments about the difference between “orientation” and “behaviour” will be adopted in later proceedings is more doubtful, but it is to be hoped that they are given due weight. Christians, to take one example, are well used to distinguishing between a “propensity” to behave in a certain way, and the actual behaviour. The Bible teaches that all people are by nature inclined to sinful behaviour, but sees nothing inconsistent in urging people at the same time to resist the temptation to do so. In other areas of life even modern Western society recognises the fact that someone may be, for example, an alcoholic, and regularly tempted to drink to access, but can commend and encourage that person not to act on their impulses and to resist the temptation. Whether this situation is analogous to the orientation of a person to have sex with others of the same sex is a matter of great debate. But it does not seem unreasonable that religious believers ought to be able to make the case that there is a difference between the two concepts of propensity and activity, and to argue that in some cases there is a valid distinction to be made between them.

Finally, it should be noted that even if the Applicant had been able to establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination, it seems possible that the Church would have had a defence under s 37(1)(d) SDA, which says that the earlier provisions prohibiting sex discrimination do not apply to:

any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

Clearly the practice of having multiple sexual partners at the same time (which of course would mean at least one of them was not married to the Applicant) would run contrary to the moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Since the role of Centacare was to counsel on family relationships, presumably the counselling was designed to be given in accordance with those moral teachings, and it would be a fundamental contradiction of those teachings for the church to employ a counsellor whose lifestyle was a living repudiation of those teachings. No doubt, in addition, many members of the Catholic Church would be offended by a person in this situation purporting to deliver counsel on behalf of the Church. On this basis it seems fairly clear that s 37 would have been engaged and entitled the Church to dismiss the Applicant, even if there had been “sexual orientation discrimination”.

However, as clear as this may seem, it has to be said that there is now some doubt about the application of s 37 since the earlier-mentioned decision in CYC v Cobaw, where it was queried whether a religious organisation’s views on sexual behaviour could be said to be part of their fundamental “beliefs” or “doctrines”. As discussed in my previous notes on the case, however, I take the view that the decision of the NSW Court of Appeal on this issue in OV & OW v MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF THE WESLEY MISSION COUNCIL [2010] NSWCA 155 is binding on lower courts (as an earlier decision on the point by an appellate court) and should be followed on this issue. Christian doctrines on marriage and sexual behaviour have been a fundamental part of the Church’s teaching from the earliest days and were clearly intended by Parliament to be relevant in these contexts.

Religious organisations and their employees- new US decision

Can a religious organisation hire and fire staff in accordance, not just with their commitment to its doctrinal beliefs, but also on the basis of whether they conform to moral teachings? This was the issue in the background of a recent US decision, and it is interesting to note how this might play out in Australia.

The Conlon decision

The United States (Federal) Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit, has just handed down its decision on appeal in Conlon v InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA (No 14-1549, 5 Feb 2015), holding that Ms Conlon, who was dismissed as a “spiritual director” by IVCF, cannot file a Federal (or State) sex discrimination claim against the organisation. IVCF is an organisation that operates on many University campuses in the US, supporting evangelical gospel ministry there. (Full disclosure in case it is relevant: I have been a long time supporter of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, AFES, a similar organisation in this country which is, like IVCF/USA, a part of a wider global network, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES.) Ms Conlon worked from 2004-2011 as a “spiritual director” assisting IVCF staff workers in their spiritual growth. When she started discussing problems within her marriage, and in particular flagged her possible divorce in March 2011, IVCF supervisors put her on paid leave to support her while dealing with this issue. When by the end of 2011 that seemed not to be working, her employment was terminated in December 2011.

The employment conditions for IVCF staff, which were made clear by the organisation from the outset, required that staff annually reaffirm their commitment to the IVCF Purpose Statement and Doctrinal Basis. The court quotes early in their decision a phrase (which I assume comes from the Purpose Statement), to the effect that

IVCF “believes in the sanctity of marriage and desires that all married employees honor their marriage vows.”

Presumably the IVCF leaders, although the decision does not make this clear, took the view that Ms Conlon would, if she were divorced, not provide an appropriate model of Christian behaviour in this area. I want to be clear that I am not making any comment on the rights and wrongs of this decision. Despite my general support for IFES and its affiliates, I know nothing about the decision in this case and whether it was godly, wise or justified. In fact, it somewhat disturbs me that the court notes that Ms Conlon alleges that two similarly situated male employees were divorced while working for IVCF, but were not disciplined or terminated (see p 3 of the decision.) But of course there are divorces and divorces, and difficult decision have to be made in these circumstances.

The fact that life can be so messy, and that decisions about who should be employed in spiritual leadership are so dependent on a number of fuzzy criteria, may be partly what lies behind the doctrine of the “ministerial exception” in US law, which was successfully relied on here by IVCF. Formally the doctrine is driven by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, forbidding the Establishment of a state church (and excessive “entanglement” by the state in religious groups) and setting out rights of Free Exercise of religion. The doctrine has been applied by lower courts for a while, but received endorsement by the US Supreme Court for the first time a few years ago in its decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v EEOC, 132 S Ct 694 (2012). I discussed this decision in detail in an earlier paper, but in brief the main relevant part is that the USSC held (somewhat surprisingly for a religion clause decision, unanimously) that Federal employment discrimination laws could not apply to “claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers” (at 705).

Applying Hosanna-Tabor, the 6th Circuit here held that IVCF clearly qualified as a “religious organisation” (not only its name, but its mission statement and activities were all directed to religious ends), and that the position that Ms Conlon held of “spiritual director” satisfied at least 2 of the 4 criteria set out by the SC for an employee being regarded as a “minister” : the title of her role, “spiritual” director, and the religious functions she carried out, being responsible for assisting the “spiritual growth” of other IVCF staff. (See the discussion at pp 7-8: the court did not explicitly find that the other 2 factors were not present, being formal theological training and use of the title in public contexts; they just held that there was not enough evidence to make a finding. But the other 2 factors were, in this case, sufficient.)

The result was that under the authority of Hosanna-Tabor the court could not entertain a claim for discrimination under federal law; and they also ruled that since the decision was based on the Constitutional rights granted under the First Amendment, and it had long been held that the First Amendment applied to the States as well as to the Federal Congress, nor could a claim under State law be made (see pp 10-11.)

Australian law?

How would this matter be resolved under Australian law? I will comment on the application of the Federal legislation, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (‘SDA’)- I think a similar analysis would apply under most State laws.

Under the SDA there would be a possible prima facie claim that a decision to dismiss someone because of their divorce would be discrimination based on “marital or relationship status”, which is one of the alternative grounds of unlawful discrimination in employment- see s 6, and the definition of “marital or relationship status” which includes the state of being “divorced”. I am not sure, in fact, whether this is a claim that would be possible under US law- the court in Conlon refers simply to the differential treatment of divorced men as opposed to the claimant, who is a woman. Under the SDA that might also give rise to a straightforward gender-based discrimination claim under s 5(1), whereby by reason of

(a)  the sex of the aggrieved person…. the discriminator treats the aggrieved person less favourably than, in circumstances that are the same or are not materially different, the discriminator treats or would treat a person of a different sex.

Under s 14(2)(c), in Division 1 of Part II, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the basis of marital or relationship status, or sex, “by dismissing the employee.”

While there is no general Hosanna-Tabor principle under Australian law, there are “balancing provisions” in the SDA designed to protect the religious freedom of certain organisations. Under s 37(1) in Part II:

  (1)  Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

                     (a)  the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;

                     (b)  the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;

                     (c)  the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice; or

                     (d)  any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

Should a local student religious group dismiss a staff-worker in similar circumstances to those in Conlon, then it would need to show that the circumstances fell within s 37. It would probably be difficult to establish that a student staff-worker was a “minister of religion” under paras (a) and (b). It is possible that para (c) could apply but that would depend whether a “religious observance or practice” was broad enough to cover not just “rituals” but also the general practice of evangelism and bible studies, for example. Para (d) would probably apply: a group of this sort would be a “body established for religious purposes”, and the “practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion” would be arguably the policy of requiring staff members to conform to Biblical standards of sexual behaviour, including practices in relation to divorce. Possibly the bar would be set a bit higher in Australian than in the US: whereas under Hosanna-Tabor the court would not even begin to inquire into the religious criteria used, in Australia the organisation might need to make a plausible case that their decision could be justified by a set of doctrines and beliefs that were at least a possible reading of their religious tradition.

There a number of uncertainties, then, as to how an Australian court would deal with these matters. Those uncertainties are unfortunately compounded by the differing views expressed in the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw [2014] VSCA 75, discussed in a previous post. One reading of Cobaw might suggest that matters of sexual behaviour, even decisions about divorce, were not part of the “doctrines, tenets or beliefs” of a Christian organisation (a view I would disagree with.) Another issue is that whether any disciplinary action taken “conforms” to those beliefs, so that the court would be given the task of coming up with an authoritative interpretation of the Biblical material on divorce! (A matter that mainstream Christian churches, and groups within churches, have disagreed on for the last 2000 years…)

In my view, despite what was said in Cobaw, the best approach is for the courts to grant a wide “margin of appreciation” (to use a phrase drawn from European jurisprudence) to religious groups, so that so long as a decision seems to be made in a good faith and consistent interpretation of their own doctrines (not in a “sham” way to achieve a particular outcome), then courts should recognise their freedom to determine who is suitable to work in key positions in these organisations. But whether this is the way that courts go in Australia remains to be seen.