The St Vincent de Paul Society has stridently opposed the Federal Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill, stating protection for good faith statements of belief “leaves the door wide open to people being subjected to offensive remarks, or goods or services being withdrawn, or missing out on employment or educational opportunities”.
In the St Vincent de Paul Society submission to the Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry, CEO Toby O’Connor writes that the bill “and subsequent debate may cause hurt to those we assist, as well as to some of our members, volunteers, and staff”.
“We regret this but want to reassure all of our commitment to inclusiveness.”
The Vinnies submission states the bill “is not best way (sic) to protect the human rights of all Australians, including their rights to freedom of religious practice”.
“O’Connor expresses concern that amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act have not been passed to ‘protect students from being suspended or expelled from schools based on their sexual orientation’.”
“We are concerned that if the Bill is passed, unintended consequences will prevail. People will be hurt, potentially on many levels, and will have no legal remedy,” O’Connor wrote.
“This is what happens when an attempt is made to exclude certain conduct as discrimination.”
O’Connor expresses concern that amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act have not been passed to “protect students from being suspended or expelled from schools based on their sexual orientation”.
The submission also claims that religious freedom legislation would privilege religious speech over other human rights, and cites the view of National LGBTI organisation Equality Australia that the purpose of the bill’s proposed protections for religious speech are “to allow people to say, write and communicate things which could be discrimination today”.
“The Society considers that anti-discrimination legislation should provide a degree of protection and support for those who are vulnerable and marginalised. It should not privilege certain groups over others, who feel their rights need to be protected,” the submission states.
Regarding provisions in the proposed legislation to allow a religious organisation to prefer its own faithful when hiring staff, the St Vincent de Paul Society said current laws were sufficient for it to satisfy the “small number of volunteer positions that must be filled by Catholics”.
The St Vincent de Paul submission is the most significant among the cohort of Catholic opposition to the bill, which also includes the Josephite Justice Network, Sacred Heart Mission and Concerned Catholics Tasmania Inc.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has endorsed the Religious Discrimination Bill and associated legislation as “positive and modest steps forward to limit religious discrimination in Australia”.
“St Vincent de Paul Society … ‘does not at all see itself, nor does it seek to promote itself, as a body that holds views opposite to those that may be expressed from time to time by the ACBC’.”
“Most people who adhere to a religious belief exercise their religious freedom in the service of the common good,” the ACBC submission, signed by Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli, stated.
“Overwhelmingly they do so in a spirit that respects the rights and liberties of others, and as Australian citizens, they expect in fairness that they will be accorded equal respect in the exercise of their rights to practice and manifest their religious beliefs.”
The National Catholic Education Commission and Catholic Women’s League offered support for the bill, as did the peak bodies of other major religions: the National Imams Council, Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and Australian Christian Lobby.
St Vincent de Paul Society National President Claire Victory told The Catholic Weekly that the society “does not at all see itself, nor does it seek to promote itself, as a body that holds views opposite to those that may be expressed from time to time by the ACBC”.
The society’s submission was “not significantly at odds with the ACBC position on some positions [roles] in faith-based institutions holding responsibility for spiritual teaching and guiding everyday operational practices to align to the teachings of the church,” Victory said.
“We hold this position for those positions [roles] within the Society as prescribed in the Rule.
“Our submission is based on the Society’s experience and values, which are firmly anchored in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, not on other parties’ submissions. We have not made comment on these other parties’ submissions.”
Victory told The Catholic Weekly that, “Being a voice to government on behalf of people who are living with disadvantage is core Catholic business; it’s what Jesus did and we should follow his example.”
“The Society considers that anti-discrimination legislation should provide a degree of protection and support for those who are vulnerable and marginalised.”
“So, when we speak up for those who are marginalised, we do so on behalf of our 60,000 members, volunteers and employees but also for the legions of Catholics who support our works and our advocacy and who, like us, see such efforts as a true and authentic expression of our Catholic faith.”
The Religious Freedom Bill is currently before two separate inquiries; one by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human rights, the other by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
Both inquiries will hold public hearings in coming weeks and are required to issue their reports by 4 February.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference declined to comment further on the submission when contacted by The Catholic Weekly.