VICTORIA: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
"Big brother" laws could curb religious freedom
, May 1, 2010
A new Equal Opportunity Bill that could severely curb religious freedom was passed by Victoria's parliamentary upper house, the Legislative Council, on April 15, and has now become law.
According to Free2Believe
, an association of Australians concerned about religious freedom, many Victorian Christian churches and religious organisations fear that the gate is now wide open for anti-religious and anti-family activists to exploit the new laws in order to monitor, harass and litigate against any churches or religious agencies with which they disagree.
The new legislation, which was introduced by the Brumby Labor Government, gives the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) unprecedented new powers for investigating suspected "systematic discrimination", even when no complaint has been lodged.
The commission now possesses:
• The power to enter a church or meeting for the sole purpose of assessing what is said.
• The right to demand that a religious organisation hand over its files.
• The right to compel church members to attend a hearing at the commission, even in the absence of any specific complaint.
• The power to initiate a complaint of discrimination.
Victoria experienced a foretaste of this sort of law a few years ago, with the famous, long-running case between the Islamic Council of Victoria and two Christian pastors, Pakistan-born Pastor Daniel Scot and Sri Lankan-born Pastor Danny Nalliah of the Christian Catch the Fire Ministries.
Conservative columnist Andrew Bolt recently quoted the VEOHRC's own case files to show how the commission set up this Christian group by sending three Muslims to attend a seminar the two pastors were holding on what the Koran says about Islamic jihad. As a result, the two pastors were prosecuted under Victoria's then newly established racial and religious vilification law.
Andrew Bolt commented on the latest legislative changes: "Victoria's equal opportunity police were just not getting enough complaints to work with. So this foolish Labor Government this week unleashed them to go invent some more, passing even more oppressive Equal Opportunity laws." ("Victoria sets loose its discrimination witchhunters", Herald Sun
, April 17, 2010).
The new Equal Opportunity Act was initiated by the Victorian Labor Government's radical attorney-general Rob Hulls. It was first passed by Victoria's lower house, the Legislative Assembly, then on April 15 was voted on in the upper house, supported by Labor and Green MPs. Voting against the bill were all the upper house MPs of the Liberal and National parties and Peter Kavanagh of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
After the bill was passed and became law, the Revd Dr Mark Durie, Anglican vicar at St Mary's parish in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, said: "The major focus of public concern has been whether Christian organisations will be able to employ like-minded people to their organisations. For example, can a Christian school favour Christians when filling teaching staff vacancies? Can a Christian aid agency favour Christians in senior management roles?"
An apparent exemption in the new law allows a religious organisation to discriminate in its employing someone, but only if:
a) "conformity with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion is an inherent requirement of the particular position," and
b) the person's "religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity means that he or she does not meet that inherent requirement".
However, this apparent concession, reasonable though it sounds, will do little to protect a religious organisation from unreasonable litigation. Before a religious body can exercise its freedom, it may first have to prove to state authorities that it qualifies for these religious exemptions — in other words, prove its innocence, probably at great legal cost.
If a church-run school or hospital wishes to avoid possible prosecution, it will have to be prepared at a moment's notice to justify, to the satisfaction of a secular tribunal, its denomination's particular "inherent requirements" (e.g., theological doctrinal positions and expectations of ethical behaviour).
Dr Durie commented: "The first doctrinal issue will be to determine what is 'the religion' of the organisation. For a Catholic body this will be straight-forward, but for many Christian agencies it could be quite difficult.
"One can think of a recent case involving the Wesleyan Mission in Sydney (in relation to gender identity discrimination). At first the courts decided the religion was 'Uniting Church', but the Appelate Tribunal decided that the religion was 'Wesleyanism'. ...
"If an evangelical Anglican parish is taken to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), will the religion be 'Anglican' or 'Evangelical Anglican'? And what about parachurch agencies, with no denominational identity? What will 'the religion' be in these cases?
"The second doctrinal issue will be what are the 'doctrines, beliefs or principles' of 'the religion' as they apply to 'religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity'.
"Again, the Catholics will do well on this one. They have a detailed catechism which dots every 'i' and crosses every 't'. But for some 'religions' this will be a big ask.
"I say — good luck to them! A lot of people will be interested to discover from our courts' rulings what is the doctrinally correct Anglican, Baptist, Unity Church or Lutheran position on gay marriage."
Durie added: "Despite the Victorian Government's blasé confidence that actions which are 'justified' will be protected by the law, determining what is in fact 'justified' will require complex theological rulings to be made by secular courts."REFERENCES:Free2Believe
Andrew Bolt, "Victoria sets loose its discrimination witchhunters", Herald Sun
blog (Melbourne), April 17, 2010.
Revd Dr Mark Durie, "Equal opportunity law revisited", St Mary's Vicar's Blog
(Melbourne), April 17, 2010.