The Gillard government is too scared to brawl with the bishops, rabbis and imams over equality.
I HESITATE to say this but the Prime Minister is living in sin. I don't give a damn. Nor do most Australians. But that sort of thing bothers religious leaders. So Labor's Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill will renew their authority to bar anyone in Julia Gillard's shoes from any job in any religious school, hospital or charity, even those run with public money.
It's a curious spectacle, a prime minister legislating against people of her own kind.
If she wants to get a job someday in, say, an Anglican hostel she could solve her problem by marrying. But the woman who will be shepherding the legislation through the Senate really hasn't a hope. The new law will back any religious organisation refusing to hire Penny Wong if having a lesbian on their payroll would injure ''the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion''.
This is not a summer spoof. Nor is it a distant issue like gay marriage. This is here, now and practical. The bill, now before a Senate inquiry, will leave unprotected a long list of ordinary Australians working or wanting to work with some of the biggest employers in the country.
The bill is part housekeeping: it aims to gather into a single law all Commonwealth anti-discrimination legislation. At the same time, it offers long-overdue protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and same sex relationships.
Sounds wonderful. But religious leaders were reassured as far back as Kevin Rudd's time that the legislation wouldn't interfere with the power they demand to refuse to employ any or all gays and lesbians, single mothers, adulterers - yes, even adulterers! - bisexuals, transsexuals, the intersex and couples such as Julia Gillard and Tim Mathieson.
Zealots call this a necessary exercise of their faith. Only school funding is as heavily defended by bishops, orthodox rabbis and imams as the ''freedom'' to punish these sinners in the workplace. Struggles over this are subterranean, largely unreported and almost always successful.
The issue spooks politicians. They know even the faithful don't enthusiastically back their leaders on this one. But grappling with bishops and rabbis complaining about threats to religious liberty is about the most unwanted contest a government can imagine.
Plucky little Tasmania stripped religious bodies of the ''freedom'' to sack sinners from schools, hospitals and charities over a decade ago and there are no reports from the far side of Bass Strait that their Christian mission has suffered.
Britain tried to do much the same in 2010 and Labour's plan was first denounced by the Pope - Benedict said it ''violates natural law'' - and wound back by Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. But then and now the UK forbids discrimination in employment when religious bodies are spending public money. Secular function, secular rules.
Not here. Labor in Canberra has given up without a fight. Other countries and other Australian states have sweated over legal formulae to balance the demands of the faiths and the needs of the vulnerable. But Labor's Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill offers the religious open slather. It's a bigots' charter.
Many religious leaders are appalled by this thinking. ''How bizarre,'' declared the Anglican bishop of Gippsland, John McIntyre, a few years ago, ''that the followers of Jesus Christ would oppose, and ask for exemptions from, a legal instrument that has at its heart a declaration of the dignity and value of every human life and the basic rights of every person.''
But that's not how the Gillard government thinks. Nor does the opposition. They simply don't want a brawl with the bishops. Labor's bill is making only one tiny advance: the faiths will have to take same sex couples into retirement villages and nursing homes which have Commonwealth funding. But those same homes and villages can go on refusing to employ gays and lesbians to look after them.
It's absurd. The faiths know they have thousands of lesbians, gays, single mothers and the rest on their payroll and they know they can't do without them. Catholic and Anglican leaders know that any serious attempt to purge them from their hospitals, schools and charities would see the parishes rise up in revolt.
But services can be denied, applications rebuffed, promotions blocked and individuals picked off. It happens all the time. And because these men and women can be sacked at any time simply for being who they are, they have little-to-nil job security. BHP can't sack an engineer for being gay but the Catholic Church can sack a surgeon from St Vincent's Hospital for that alone.
So deals are done by the vulnerable that vary from faith to faith, diocese to diocese and employer to employer to stay on the payrolls of the faiths. They are expected to shut up, be discreet and hide who they are.
The zealots of the faiths see this as doing God's work with the blessing, it seems, of the Gillard government.
David Marr is a freelance journalist, commentator and author of several books.