The restricting of freedom of association and freedom of religion is back on the agenda in Victorian Parliament this week. As the Institute for Civil Society’s Mark Sneddon wrote a few weeks back, it appeared the push to force religious bodies to leave their beliefs at the door when making hiring decisions had faltered. And indeed it had. But the Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill is at the top of the notice paper for debate during this final sitting week of the parliamentary year.
We need to again ask: 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? If AFL clubs don’t need to justify their right to discriminate in their choice of cheer squad members on the basis of which team people support, why ought a religious school not be allowed to make employment decisions with religious belief in mind? There is no sensible answer.
It appears that this legislation is designed to undermine religious bodies alone. But the concern is not simply for religion. If the right to associate according to personally-held belief is undermined in this more specific fashion, then all of the other bodies in our civil society have the potential to be affected. In principle, any group which subscribes to a set of convictions, be it to do with sport, the environment, religion, backgammon, sexuality, and so on, ought to be able to choose who can associate with their group. Any group which wants to preserve a minority culture, be it an ethnonational culture – the Macedonian social club), a sexual culture – the local LGBTIQ club) – and so on, ought to be able to reject applications for membership from people who don’t fit the narrow requirements to join.
Another obvious parallel is political parties. What if the Labor Party, in the name of anti-discrimination, were made to hire a card-carrying National Party member as a campaign officer or fundraiser? The idea is nonsensical. Of course political parties should be able to discriminate according to political beliefs.
But, apparently, Victorian religious organisations shouldn’t be allowed to make employment decisions according to religious belief or sexual ethic anymore. Hence this new legislation. One hopes that common sense will continue to prevail in the Victorian Upper House, as it did back in November when this bill was last considered. If it does, Victorians will be better off. If it doesn’t, the Andrews Government has an early Christmas present for Victorians: restricted associational and religious freedoms. Obviously, not a gift to look forward to.
Simon Kennedy is a research analyst at the Institute for Civil Society.