19 May 2024

‘Gross overreach’: Faith communities protest state laws

Australian kids at assembly. Picture: Shutterstock

By Stephen Cauchi 

1 December 2021

AN ANGLICAN leader has condemned the state government’s anti-discrimination legislation due to pass in the Parliament’s upper house in early December, joining with other religious communities to do so. 

The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 would narrow exceptions to equal opportunity laws that allow religious bodies and schools to discriminate against staff and students. 

But advocacy group Equality Australia says the legislation may be overruled by the federal government’s revised Religious Discrimination Bill, if that becomes law. 

Leaders from a range of religious communities raised concerns about the proposed state legislation in an open letter published in The Age on 16 November. Signatories included representatives from the Catholic Church, the Coptic and Greek Orthodox churches, the Churches of Christ, and Jewish, Islamic, Sikh and Hare Krisna organisations. 

It was addressed to Victoria’s Attorney General Jaclyn Symes. 

Bishop Paul Barker was one of the signatories, representing the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne,   

“The bill unfairly targets religious bodies and educational institutes,” the letter read. 

“In introducing the legislation, the Victorian government is seeking to dictate how faith communities should run their organisations. 

“This gross overreach could see religious organisations being forced to violate their beliefs and values in managing employment matters.” 

Critics of the legislation say that while the bill allows schools to discriminate on the basis of religious belief, they are not able to discriminate on the basis of conduct.  

Social policy think tank the Institute for Civil Society criticised the legislation saying it ignored that religions had moral codes of conduct, which they expected their followers to keep. 

Executive director Mark Sneddon said that sacking someone for wrong conduct under the new bill would be unlawful unless the body could show that it took the action because of the person’s religious belief or religious activity rather than their conduct. 

“That will be very difficult to show in many cases because people may say they still hold the relevant belief – they just can’t live it out in their conduct in current circumstances,” Mr Sneddon said. 

Bishop Barker told The Melbourne Anglican that the State Government legislation did not recognise that faith was not just about belief. He said it was also about community, and about behaviour. 

He said pornography consumption and gambling were examples of other behaviour inconsistent with Christianity and other faiths. 

“If a Christian teacher is committing adultery or is an alcoholic…it’s also an issue of faith,” Bishop Barker said. 

He said there was a further distinction in behaviour between somebody who failed but was repentant and seeking mercy, and one who was flagrant. 

Bishop Barker said that disagreeing with something, such as homosexuality, was not necessarily hate speech. 

“As soon as someone says they don’t believe homosexuality’s right, [critics] say, ‘Oh, you’re a homophobe and it’s hate speech’,” he said. 

“But loving someone with whom you disagree … is actually a part of being Christian in the world.” 

Victorian Attorney General Jacylyn Symes committed to the anti-discrimination laws in September after stories were published in The Age newspaper about gay and lesbian teachers being sacked by religious schools because of their sexuality. 

“We know the majority of Victorians have no tolerance for discrimination, but sadly, discrimination is sometimes justified in the name of religion,” Ms Symes said in The Age in November. 

“These reforms respect the independence of religious bodies while reducing critical gaps in protections against discrimination.” 

Equality Australia has campaigned in favour of the state government bill, saying religious discrimination against LGBTQ+ students in schools is common.

The federal government’s anti-discrimination legislation was yet to be passed by the House of Representatives at the time of going to print. 

The federal bill as at its first reading to parliament included a provision saying that a religious body did not discriminate against a person under the act by engaging in good faith, in conduct to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of its adherents. 

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