Proposed changes to Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act will restrict religious organisations and schools from employing staff with the same religious beliefs.
Instead, religious schools may be required to hire staff who openly disagree with the school’s faith and values.
“As a point of principle, this is a serious over-reach of the Government into the rightful freedoms of faith-based organisations in Victoria,” Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli wrote in a letter (pdf) addressed to the Victorian Parliament. “The proposed legislation diminishes the ability of faith organisations to confidently manage employment matters according to their faith and conscience.”
Under the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 (pdf), which is to be debated in the Victorian Parliament’s lower house this week, religious organisations and schools will only be able to make employment decisions based on an employee’s religious beliefs where these are “inherent” to the job. These could include positions of senior leaders such as principals or religious education teachers.
The proposed amendment will “narrow current exceptions” so that discrimination based on sexuality, marital status, gender identity will not be permitted.
“For the very first time, intersex Victorians are now also explicitly protected against discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, with sex characteristics now included as a protected attribute under the Act,” according to a government statement.
“Adding sex characteristics—defined as a person’s physical features relating to sex such as chromosomes, hormones and anatomy—alongside race, disability, religious belief or activity and other protected attributes makes it clearer than ever that discrimination on this basis is unlawful and will not be tolerated.”
But Comensoli argues that the state government has failed to understand the “holistic” dimensions of “faith,” saying that it affects the way people view and conduct themselves in the world.
“Faith is part of the very make-up and fabric of each school. It is entirely reasonable and fair that religious bodies should be able to preference those who share their beliefs and values in their own private employment matters,” Comensoli said.
“I do not believe it is in anyone’s interest in the long term for a secular power to make such a determination for religious organisations.”
However, Victoria’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said extensive consultation was done to ensure the proposed bill recognises the “important needs of faith communities and protect Victorians from discrimination based on who they are.”
Under the Equal Opportunity Act, religious bodies can discriminate against a person because of personal characteristics. For example, a religious school may be able to fire an administrative assistant who comes out as gay or gets divorced, according to an Equal Opportunity Act fact sheet.
The state government’s proposed Religious Exceptions Bill follows the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020, which passed the Victorian Parliament in February and will come into effect from February 2022.
Under the Conversion Therapy Bill, “prayer” will be a criminal offence if its purpose is to “change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Comensoli has previously spoken against the Bill, saying that while most mainstream Christian churches “reject coercive practices or activities that do harm to LGBT people,” the bill “goes well and truly beyond that.”
“Who I pray to, how I pray, what I pray for and most particularly, who I pray with, is not of concern to any government,” he told The Age in December 2020.
However, Andrews had criticised religious leaders who did not support the Bill, saying that “Victoria is a secular state” and that the Bill will “save lives.”
Mentone Baptist Church Pastor Murray Campbell said that it took 300 years for Christianity to be no longer deemed “dangerous and criminal.”
“In the space of 5 years, basic Christian ideas have been maligned and even made illegal in my State of Victoria,” he said in a post on Twitter.
Meanwhile, the Federal government is working towards introducing a Religious Discrimination Bill by the end of 2021, federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash told The Age in October.
She said the federal government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill “will ensure that individuals cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their religious belief or activity.”