Fact sheet: Can I run a Christian business?

HRLA has prepared a series of facts sheets to help you become informed about your religious freedom rights. This is the third in the series and discusses running a Christian business.

Here’s what you need to know.

Social Context – Discrimination Laws

Many Christian small business owners want to ensure their workplaces honour God and are places where Christian principles and values are respected. They may prefer to employ Christian staff, or expect their Christian and non-Christian staff alike to respect a Christian ethos in their lifestyles and behaviour.

General Guidance: Maintaining a Business with Christian Character

An employer cannot normally discriminate on the basis of religious belief. However, most workplaces are built on an ethos or character that includes a set of core values underlying the character of the business. Many workplaces have a Mission or Values Statement or Code of Conduct which sets out a minimum standard of behaviour that employees are expected to demonstrate. Workplaces can reasonably consider their own public reputation and expect their employees not to engage in conduct that would bring the business into disrepute.

What does the law say?

Discrimination laws prevent most businesses from discriminating on the basis of religion, which is a protected attribute in the Fair Work Act and in most state laws. In general, businesses cannot insist that their staff be Christians or require them to uphold particular moral codes in their private lives.

Discrimination can be direct discrimination when it treats a particular group of people less favourably because of a particular attribute – for example, by refusing to employ someone on the basis of their sex or ethnic background. Or it can be indirect discrimination when it imposes a condition that has the effect of disadvantaging certain people. For example, a requirement that all staff do some Saturday shifts may be indirect discrimination against people who observe a Saturday Sabbath, such as Jews.

In some states, there are exceptions to discrimination laws for organisations that are “established for religious purposes”.

In such cases, certain activity that is necessary to conform to “the doctrines, tenets or beliefs” of Christianity will be permitted.

A commercial business that is not explicitly established for a religious purpose will be subject to the same discrimination laws that apply to other businesses. This includes in their employment decisions around who to hire.

Some tips for fostering a culture within a workplace

  • Be informed. Know what the discrimination law in your state prohibits, and also what it allows.
  • Mission statement. Have a clear idea of what the mission of your business is, and what values are important to support that.
  • Consistency. Be careful to uphold your values consistently without targeting certain types of behaviour disproportionately. For example, do not have a zero tolerance policy towards insults against Christianity while being lax about insults towards other religious groups.

Note: This fact sheet does not constitute legal advice. If you are unsure about your legal rights at work, contact HRLA. We have experience helping everyday Australians as they face hostility for their Christian views. The sooner you get legal assistance, the easier it is to resolve a problem. Visit www.hrla.org.au for more information.