By Muriel Porter
23 May 2022
Could clergy and other church workers be required to have their fitness to work with children appraised under a government registration regime, as lawyers and health professionals do? Currently churches and other religious institutions conduct their own fitness checks.
Government registration could be avoided by religious institutions being proactive in this area, according to prominent Melbourne Anglican lawyer Michael Shand QC. Delivering the the annual Sharwood Lecture at Trinity College, Mr Shand said the more churches were proactive, the more likely they would successfully resist moves for a state regime of registration.
Offering a wide-ranging discussion of the interaction between state law and religious institutions, Mr Shand called for greater mutual engagement, co-operation and collaboration between state and church. Better engagement would also have a better prospect of reconciling the conflicts in moral values that arise, he said. Mr Shand was formerly Chancellor of the Melbourne diocese and is a lay canon of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Mr Shand outlined circumstances that have triggered state interventions into churches and other religious bodies. In particular, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had led to a great deal of government legislation impacting churches, at both Commonwealth, and state and territory level. He pointed out that given that states and territories have moved differently in relation to their own context, this has created difficulties for religious institutions that operate nationally or in more than one state.
Marriage equality and anti-discrimination legislation was another area affecting the churches, he said. Referring to the 2021 Victorian Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Act, Mr Shand said that on the one hand, certain discriminatory conduct in connection with employment against, for example, a person in a same sex marriage was unlawful and contrary to community moral values. But he said some religious institutions or sections of them said their religious faith could not countenance employment of such person. He added that different views on this were held by bishops within the Anglican Church.
“Does legislation change community moral values or merely reflect them?” he continued. “The postal survey in 2017 returned a majority that reflected those changed values. We now have community moral values given legal effect by Parliamentary enactment at odds with some contemporary religious values. This is a striking development. Does it in part reflect the disenchantment with religious institutions as a result of their response to child sexual abuse?”