The Victorian Labor Government has run into heavy weather trying to convince the Legislative Council to pass its Religious Exceptions Bill.
Most people would agree that an organisation formed to advance a cause or a way of life — whether social, political or religious — should be able to choose not to employ people whose beliefs or lifestyle contradict or undermine the cause. Current Victorian anti-discrimination law permits this type of discrimination. Political parties can apply a political values and activity filter in employment — the Greens don’t have to employ climate change deniers as fundraisers or in media relations. Imagine if they did. Religious bodies can employ a religious values and activities filter -– they don’t have to employ people whose beliefs or actions flatly contradict the religion. And clubs to preserve minority cultures don’t have to accept as members people who don’t have the attributes of that culture. And fair enough. Organisations which advance a cause or way of life need the freedom to choose to employ people who will be ambassadors for the cause.
As Murray Campbell described on Flat White some time ago, and as the Institute for Civil Society has explained elsewhere, the Religious Exceptions Bill limits this freedom, but only for religious organisations. It will require religious organisations, including schools, to justify to an arm of the government, like the Human Rights Commission or a tribunal, why it is “an inherent requirement” of any position for a potential employee to conform to the values of the religion.
If the government disagrees, the religious organisation will have to take on employees who don’t agree with the basic values of the organisation or pay them compensation. The law will effectively remove the ability of parents to send their children to a religious school where all the staff are selected to express and live out the values of the religion.
The law will make it hard for religious organisations to maintain their religious identity and culture. Why should a church (or mosque) have to justify to the government why its youth leader needs to be a Christian (or Muslim) and follow Christian (or Islamic) teaching on sex and marriage?
Imagine if the Collingwood Football Club were forced to accept one-eyed Carlton supporters as members of the Collingwood cheer squad. How would that work? Or what about a political party? Imagine if the ALP could not refuse to hire a vocal union hater as a fundraiser? It wouldn’t work.
The proposed law also contains a massive double-standard. Churches, mosques, synagogues, religious charities and welfare agencies, and religious schools will all need to justify to the government their “conformity to values” requirements in employment. But not political parties or organisations and not clubs for minority cultures. Only religious organisations.
The Bill looks like it is designed to undercut the ability of religious organisations to continue to be true to their basic beliefs and values. And this, it seems, has not cut the mustard with the cross bench in the Legislative Council. At least so far. The Government seems to know it may not have the numbers to pass the Bill and has adjourned debate without a resumption date.
Thankfully for Victorians, common sense and freedom of association seem to have the numbers so far in the upper house. Let’s hope good sense will continue to prevail and this bill never sees the light of day again or if it comes back it will suffer the fate required by its inherent flaws.
Mark Sneddon is the executive director of the Institute for Civil Society.