VICTORIA: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Partial backdown over Equal Opportunity Act
, October 17, 2009
Following a campaign involving thousands of submissions to Victoria's Brumby Labor Government, MPs and the media, the Victorian Government has decided to maintain the exemption for religious organisations where application of the Equal Opportunity Act would conflict with their religious beliefs.
An inquiry commissioned by the Government in 2007 to examine changes to the Act had recommended the removal of many exemptions for religious organisations, despite most submissions being against. The Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, which enforces the Act, strongly supported the removal of exemptions for religious organisations.
The outcome is a victory for common sense, and a recognition that religious organisations, which provide vital services to the community in a range of areas, including education, health care and care of the marginalised, should be able to function without compromising their beliefs.
In announcing the Government's decision, the Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, said that "in striking the balance between religious freedom and protection from discrimination, it was recognised that religious groups should be allowed to discriminate on some grounds if it was in accordance with their beliefs".
The proposed changes are not satisfactory, although they represent a backdown on what was originally proposed.
Religious and charitable organisations should have the freedom to determine how they will fulfil their roles in society, without government or bureaucratic interference.
In fact, the churches have shown themselves particularly sensitive to their social responsibilities, by offering employment, health care, education and assistance to the marginalised. The proposed laws do not arise from any perceived need, but rather, from a desire to exercise coercive social engineering.
Submissions to the inquiry into the Act showed how far religious organisations have complied with both the letter and the spirit of the Act, by extending their work far beyond those who conform to their religious beliefs.
In this respect, the Equal Opportunity Act reverses the onus of proof which in criminal matters rests with the prosecution: employers and organisations are required to prove to the Equal Opportunity Commission that they did not discriminate, rather than a complainant proving that they have.
Mr Hulls' statement makes clear that religious bodies will have to prove their case. He said, "In relation to employment, the religious nature of the organisation or school will need (to) be taken into account in determining whether a particular position needs to be filled by someone who adheres to that religion's beliefs." Criticised
Predictably, the government decision was trenchantly criticised by homosexual organisations and the Independent Education Union. Rodney Croome of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group said that "the right to employment and education is more important than pandering to religious prejudice".
The chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission, Dr Helen Szoke, gave a lukewarm endorsement to the Government's decision. She said, "This does bring us closer to ensuring fairness and equality for all Victorians."
She said she was pleased the Government had toughened the law to ensure religious bodies had to demonstrate how employing someone of a particular religion is an "inherent requirement" of the job.
However, the leading education consultant, Kevin Donnelly, backed the protections given by the law to religious organisations.
He said: "Faith-based schools are not secular schools and, while they are an important part of the broader Victorian educational community, such schools have a unique mission to fulfil in terms of their religious teachings and principles.
"If a teacher's lifestyle or beliefs are in opposition to, or contradict, the religious beliefs and tenets of a particular faith-based school, then it is only reasonable that the school has the right to deny employment.
"The reason parents send their children to faith-based schools is because such schools provide an education and environment informed and guided by their religion. The right of parents to educate their children, or to have them educated according to their religious and moral beliefs and traditions, is safeguarded under several international agreements including: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the Convention against Discrimination in Education 1960, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
"To fulfil their obligations and mission, religious schools need the freedom to employ staff who embrace that particular religion and who follow its teachings, both in word and deed. As educational institutions, it is also important that individual school authorities are free to employ staff that are committed to and support the culture of a school and its educational philosophy."
Attention now turns to the exact terms of the proposed changes to the Equal Opportunity Act, which will be unveiled early next year.
In light of the opposition expressed over recent weeks, it is quite possible that further amendments will be made to the Act to erode religious freedom in Victoria.