‘Strident secularism’ in Victorian decision

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Archbishop Comensoli, second from left, is deeply concerned by the latest move from the Andrews Labor Government. Photo: CNS

New breach of human rights looms in Victoria, say experts

Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli’s claim that a proposed anti-discrimination law change in Victoria unfairly targets religious organisations has been backed up by legal experts who say the state is at open war with committed Christians and other believers.

The archbishop said the state government’s Equal Opportunity Act (Religious Exceptions) reform will seriously diminish the rights of religious organisations to operate according to their faith and conscience.

He is particularly worried about the effect on schools that would find it increasingly difficult to employ staff who share and uphold Catholic belief and practice.

The changes would mean that Catholic and other faith-based institutions must prove if challenged that a person’s faith belief and practice was an ‘inherent requirement’ of their employment, with the Church in Victoria only retaining the right to freely preference who it admits to seminaries and convents, ordains as priests, or serves in liturgies.

Faith-based organisations would not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or lawful sexual activity. Staff could not be expected to share and help to promote the faith of the institution, other than those whose roles pass the Government’s ‘inherent requirement’ test.

The changes would be “one more unneeded attack by the Government upon people of faith in Victoria” Archbishop Comensoli said in a statement last week. The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne has asked the Government to re-think its proposals and to let go of its commitment to an ‘inherent requirement’ test.

Risk to faith-based schools under the guise of equal opportunity

John Steenhof, principal lawyer of the Human Rights Law Alliance, said it was “a terrible Bill” and a direct attack on Christians in Victoria.

“It is a complete breach of human rights protected by the Victorian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s yet another example of the state of Victoria targeting Christians and particularly parents who want to educate their children according to their moral and ethical values.”

Iain Benson said that the state’s government was making the mistake of viewing a religious organisation without a religious understanding of the way they operate. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia Iain Benson told The Catholic Weekly that the Victorian government was making “the old-fashioned secularist mistake” of viewing a religious organisation without a religious understanding of the way many of them operate.

“The Victorian government’s approach fails to understand that religious projects are often, not always, but often, organic projects. They function as an organic whole irrespective of the particular task that somebody might have,” he said.

“What the government is doing here is nonsense to a Catholic project which understands everything as sacramental. In the context of Catholic education, there’s nothing unholy about playing rugby, or about music or art, everything’s sacramentally connected.

“What this kind of riding rough-shod over religious projects shows is a strident secularism that I think is ultimately inconsistent with the free exercise provision in the Constitution, but sadly is on the rise in Australia today. If free exercise means anything, it means the ability to teach, manifest and practice your religious beliefs in private or in public. And I think if the churches don’t push back hard on this, then they will be run right over.”

Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson told The Catholic Weekly that the new legislation is another serious attack on the human rights of people of faith by the Victorian Government.

“It is difficult to understand why Premier Daniel Andrews “continues to wage war not only on Christians, but on orthodox Jews, Muslims and other minority cultural groups that hold traditional views on issues of sexual ethics”, he said.

“[The changes would be] one more unneeded attack by the Government upon people of faith in Victoria.” – Archbishop Comensoli

“While the justification given by the Premier is to support the rights of people who are same sex attracted or have a gender identity discordant with their natal sex, in reality the changes reach much further,” Professor Parkinson said.

“They deprive Catholic schools of the right to select or prefer to select staff who adhere to the beliefs and values of the faith unless a court or tribunal agrees that it is an inherent requirement of a particular teaching position to employ a committed Christian.

“They also abolish other exemptions which were enacted to ensure that religious organisations are able to maintain their ethos and values concerning issues of sexual ethics and family life – including heterosexual activity and relationships.”

Professor Parkinson said that the legislation is inconsistent with a number of international human rights norms, particularly those which protect the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

John Steenhof. PHOTO: Supplied

In his statement, Archbishop Comensoli said that across multiple sectors, Catholics run organisations with an “open and inclusive commitment to all people in their care, regardless of their personal circumstances”.

“Suddenly the Government is determined to tell them whether or not religious identity should be a factor in managing employment matters,” he wrote.

“I am particularly worried about Catholic schools which have been a beacon of trust and welcome for so many precisely because they are run on the basis of Catholic faith and values.

“It should not be up to a court or a government bureaucrat to determine what constitutes faithful conduct in a religious context.”

Meanwhile, a poll of more than 700 Victorians in October indicated support for the current employment practices of Christian schools.

According to Christian Schools Australia, 78 per cent of Victorians from across the political spectrum supported the right of religious schools to employ teachers and other staff who support the values and beliefs of the school, if those values and beliefs are clearly stated.

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