VICTORIA: by Terri M. KelleherNews Weekly
Coalition pledge to restore freedom of religion
, June 25, 2011
In a victory for freedom of speech, association and religion, the new Liberal-National Party government in Victoria has moved to repeal the previous Brumby Labor Government’s changes to the state’s Equal Opportunity Act, which greatly restricted freedom of religion.
Last year, the state Labor Government’s attorney-general Rob Hulls initiated a new Equal Opportunity Act, which many Victorian Christian churches and religious organisations feared would provide anti-religious and anti-family activists opportunities to monitor, harass and litigate against any churches or religious agencies with which they disagreed.
The Labor legislation, which was supported by the Greens and opposed by the Liberals, Nationals and Democratic Labor Party (DLP), gave the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) unprecedented new powers for investigating suspected “systematic discrimination”, even when no complaint had been lodged.
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?”
The previously guaranteed exemption under Victoria’s original Equal Opportunity Act 1995, that allowed a religious organisation to discriminate in its employing someone, was severely restricted by Labor. Such discrimination would now only be permitted if it could be proved that conformity with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion was an “inherent requirement” of the particular position.
In other words, a religious school could be investigated for unfair discrimination if it declined to hire, say, a mathematics teacher who was living in a de facto relationship. Abiding by Christian morals, under Labor’s new law, could not be defended as an “inherent requirement” for teaching such a subject in a faith-based school.
However, the Baillieu Government, elected last November, has recently sought to repeal this provision by introducing the Equal Opportunity (Amendment) Bill 2011, which would restore the full religious exemptions that Victorians previously enjoyed.
The Coalition says the planned legislation will deliver its election commitments to:
• remove the “inherent requirements” test that would allow faith-based schools to be forced to hire staff fundamentally opposed to the school’s values; and
• restore an independent chair of VEOHRC rather than all power being concentrated in the hands of the commissioner.
On the eve of last year’s state election, Victoria’s Coalition parties said that the Brumby Labor Government’s legislation gave “VHREOC more powers to lay hands on documents and interrogate the staff or volunteers of a business or school or social club than our police force has to investigate the worst of criminals”.
The Baillieu Government’s new Equal Opportunity (Amendment) Bill 2011 was introduced into Victoria’s parliamentary lower house by Liberal attorney-general Robert Clark on May 3. On May 26, it was voted on in the absence of one Coalition MP, and the result was a tied vote. The house, however, agreed to allow the division to be held again and the bill was subsequently passed on June 1. It is now scheduled to be voted on by the upper house.
Other amendments to the Brumby legislation include:
• allowing schools to set standards of appearance and behaviour for students;
• allowing sporting clubs to run single-sex competitions where that will improve participation in the sport; and
• allowing the Victorian Electoral Commission to decline to employ members of political parties or persons actively engaged in politics.
Free2Believe, an association sponsored by the Australian Family Association and made up of thousands of Australians concerned about religious freedom, has vigorously campaigned for the repeal of the Brumby legislation.
The Coalition amendments will, if passed, continue to protect equality in the provision of services to all people regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation or age. At the same time, it will guarantee sporting and social clubs and religious organisations the right to choose whom they employ.
Attorney-general Robert Clark has pointed out that his government’s proposed changes would “apply the same rules to employment by faith-based organisations as the legislation already applies to all other aspects of the organisation’s activities, such as the provision of services or engagement of contractors, where the organisation can take various attributes into account if done in conformity with the organisation’s beliefs or to avoid offence to adherents of the faith”.
Mr Clark has stressed that the Coalition is strongly committed to effective equal opportunity laws “that fairly balance competing rights and obligations”.
The Coalition’s bill will go some way to restore that balance. It will allow VEOHRC to continue to promote equal opportunity and tackle particular abuses, but will restore freedom to religious organisations and schools, sporting and other associations to perform their legitimate functions.
Terri M. Kelleher is vice-president of the Australian Family Association.