A no campaigner
‘Opponents have been preparing for defeat from the start. They argue the losers should get the spoils.’ Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP

The no forces are right not to despair. The result, they say, is in God’s hands. Despite Essential, Ipsos, Newspoll and Roy Morgan predicting what will happen on Wednesday, the Lord might yet pull off a mighty victory.

So their prayers rise night and day …

Even so, they have been preparing for defeat from the start. It’s been a strange business now reaching its head. Their rhetoric of liberty is American and their sense of entitlement is depthless. They argue the losers should get the spoils.

But hotheads in the Liberal party room don’t have the backing of leading church warriors fighting the change. In an unusually candid interview, Bishop Michael Stead of the hardline Anglican Sydney diocese told the Guardian that his church is not calling for laws allowing individual citizens – such as wedding cake bakers – to refuse to deal with homosexuals.

“I can’t see a tenable way forward of making that case,” he said. “The problem is, how do you draw the line?” Stead concedes a law allowing Christians to refuse to do business with homosexuals would allow anyone to shun black people and Jews. “I can’t see a way of framing that that makes it sustainable.”

Sydney’s Anglican and Catholic dioceses are the ecclesiastical muscle of the no campaign. A few weeks ago, the Anglicans put a million dollars into the fight against equal marriage. As chair of the Religious Freedom Reference Group of his diocese, Stead is a key Anglican tactician in the marriage battle.

Though wide-ranging “conscience” exemptions are the dream of ultra-conservatives and a handful of smaller churches, the big players in the marriage contest know the votes aren’t there in parliament and that, once the public took a closer look at the proposals, support for them would die away.

Stead’s alternative strategy is the preferred way forward of the more determined and best-resourced opponents of change. It’s two-pronged: shift the argument into the territory of human rights (for Christians) while hanging on for grim life to the exemptions faith institutions already enjoy to ignore anti-discrimination laws.

Stead makes no secret of his belief that the right to sack any LGBTI person in Anglican employment is necessary to protect the “intrinsic ethos” of church schools, hospitals and charities. He explained the intrinsic point of a Christian hospital is not to cure people but “to do that in accordance with the teachings of Christ”.

By punishing homosexuals?

“I wouldn’t agree with the punishment of homosexuals.”

To lose a job is not punishment?

“The intention is not to punish.”

Men like Stead are familiar figures in the Protestant world these days. He’s bright, polite and without episcopal fuss. He is no friend to the drift of the modern world over the last 50 or so years and defends without flinching his belief that homosexuality is profoundly contrary to the ethos of Christianity.

The right of the faiths to hire and fire is not a boutique issue. They are now the biggest private employers in Australia. In every state and territory except Tasmania, Christians, Jews and Muslims are given almost an unfettered right to sack those who break the sex rules of their faiths.

The LGBTI are not the only sinners on the list.

Some years ago I’d gone through all the categories at risk with Stead’s predecessor. I returned to the same spare office at the back of St Andrew’s Cathedral last week to check if any sinners had been added or dropped. It turns out the list has grown.

Stead confirmed that open adulterers, the unchaste, men or women in de facto relationships, single mothers who have not repented of their sin, plus gay men and women in relationships might all be sacked.

“Our broad policy hasn’t changed,” said Stead. “We’re not seeking the right to terminate employment in all these circumstances. It’s more a question of where a person’s practice or advocacy might cause issues of conflict with the religious ethos of the institutions.”

Last time round, transsexuals were in the clear. Not now. Stead now says: “That would require looking at on a case-by-case basis.”

And no one was thinking five years ago of gay nurses marrying gays or lesbian teachers marrying lesbians. How would they fare? It’s a question being answered with extreme care across the faiths in the last few weeks though the underlying message is clear: equal marriage will put jobs at risk.

Archbishop Denis Hart told Neil Mitchell on Melbourne radio 3AW in August that jobs in Catholic hospitals and charities would be safe but he refused to guarantee the job of any teachers who marry one of their own sex.

Discretion would be crucial. “It depends on the assessment at a local level of local people,” explained Hart. “Obviously the church like many other organisations has certain expectations of staff which have to be fulfilled … we exist to teach certain things and the people in our employ need to be able to do that.”

Stead’s message is tougher. No employees of Anglican bodies would be safe. To marry one of their own sex would expose them all – administrators, clerks, nurses, doctors and teachers – to what the bishop calls “a discussion”.

The bishop can’t guarantee any job would survive such a confrontation. He is not making the rules. They have yet to be formulated. Discretion and deference to church teaching would seem to be as much the key to survival for Anglicans as Catholics.

Stead would personally look kindly on a male teacher in a church school who has married another male who yet was willing to tell his students: “Look I understand that this is not the position of the school and I’m certainly not advocating that you should do what I do but this is what I’ve done.”

But there are no guarantees.

“It’s not about trying to punish gay people,” said Stead. “It’s actually saying that we want to maintain the Christian ethos of our school. We’re trying as best we can to uphold what Jesus said about marriage and if Jesus said that marriage is as it has been from the beginning between a man and a woman … we want to be able to maintain the teaching of Christ on this.”

Stead is aware of many gay men and women on the church payroll. Ditto the divorced and single mothers by the score. Fired any lately? “Not that I am aware,” answered the bishop. “And that’s as it’s always been.”

Culling the workforce of sinners happens but is not the main game. These crude, broad exemptions carve out territory in which the faiths are answerable only to themselves or – as they would say – to their God. Here is a space where the writ of secular law hardly runs. It’s all about power, a claim that matters a great deal to them of the muscle of the faith in the modern world.

But will the money keep running? Leaders such as Stead are confident faith exemptions will survive. There is no political push to end them. But they fear for the money if the states begin applying British rules to church participation in teaching, health and charity.

In the UK, faiths must choose between purity and money. Where they run schools, hospitals and charities with tax funding they must follow secular rules. Once the nation is footing the bill, faiths can’t threaten poofs and adulterers with the sack to preserve the “intrinsic ethos” of their organisations.

The spectre of losing the money somewhere down the track has barely been mentioned in the marriage controversy but it’s high on the list of “freedoms” faith leaders are fighting very hard to preserve.

Stead’s view is blunt: the churches were the first to educate, heal and give charity. Just because they are now being paid to do so doesn’t let the secular world set the rules. “The fact that a Christian organisation operates in the public space and perhaps even receives some government funding to do so doesn’t thereby make it an agent of the state … It doesn’t mean the state can dictate all of the policies that apply to that field.”

The dying days of the campaign have seen loud demands for a “no-detriment” principle to be introduced into federal law to protect faith opponents of equal marriage. But while proponents talk about committed Christians being free to speak and keep their jobs, the real driver here is the need to guarantee that public money never dries up.

Again, Stead puts the point succinctly: “We would be contending for non-discrimination in the allocation of government funding based on an articulation of marriage. In other words is that organisations aren’t going to be penalised because they hold a traditional view of marriage and continue to promote it.”

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But Stead, like many church leaders, is also calling for new laws to protect the jobs of Christians while hanging on to old laws that let the faiths sack anyone whose sex lives they find offensive.

He sees nothing unfair about this, nothing contradictory.

“What I’m trying to contend for is the right of an institution to be able to shape itself by the people that it employs.”

We agreed that party-hire firm in Canberra should not have sacked a Christian teenager for posting on Facebook the slogan “It’s OK to vote No”. But Stead is calling for “no-detriment” laws to protect her job because the purpose of the firm is not the promotion of marriage. Forbidding such speech is “not intrinsic to the organisation’s ethos”.

But sacking LGBTI employees is fine because intrinsic to the ethos of a Christian church is disapproval of homosexuality? “The practice and the promotion of homosexual acts, yes.”

Though praying for victory, Stead seems almost resigned to defeat. He talks of the campaign as a “catalyst moment” revealing a country that’s abandoned its “soft secular history” of toleration and listening now to harsh secular voices.

“The redefinition of marriage is probably the first instance that I can think of where there’s been such a fundamental point at which the teaching of the church is now out of step with the law of our land.”

Stead will be a leader of the battle that lies beyond the vote, a battle to shape legislation as far as possible to safeguard the church. The revolutionary plan emerging from the mayhem of opposition to equal marriage is a historic pivot by the churches from deep hostility to cautious support for human rights law.

We’ll either have a freedom of religion act or we’ll have a broadly based charter of human rights,” says Stead.

“I think people are becoming increasingly aware that we can’t expect the goodwill and happy compact we’ve had to this point will necessary continue into the future. Therefore we need to have some way of framing protections for religious freedom in a more permanently binding way.”

Forget equal marriage for a moment, this shift could change the nation. The big reason this country is the last in the civilised world not to have a charter of rights is passionate opposition to the idea from bishops, cardinals, Liberal leaders and News Corp columnists.

They are now cautiously talking rights.

It’s a brutally realistic shift. Politics once offered the churches their best protection. But their political capital is low. Lobbying clearly doesn’t work as well these days. Polls for years have put in doubt the claim that there’s a “silent majority” out there backing the faiths. The vote this week is shaping as the death knell of that old idea.

So the churches are turning to rights and the law to brick in their powers. But Stead knows no laws can future-proof the church. Not now.

“I don’t think we’re going to solve all these issues in relation to legislation about same-sex marriage,” he said. “But I would love to think that in six months’ time … there would be some willingness to reconsider this question of how best to articulate a protection for all rights including the freedom of conscience, thought and belief.”

Not bad for a hardline bishop. He insisted he was not talking about the privileged protection of religious rights. “It’s going to have to be drafted with reference to other rights.” Sounds promising. The only question: what rights would be included for old foes of the faiths, for gays and lesbians, flagrant adulterers, unrepentant single mothers, queers, the intersex and, now, men married to men?