Proposed Bill a ‘serious overreach’: Archbishop Comensoli

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli has written to all members of the Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Melbourne expressing grave concerns about the State Government’s proposed new legislation, the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021.

In the letter, the Archbishop explained that the proposed changes will significantly impact all faith-based organisations in Victoria who will no longer be able to employ staff who hold the same religious beliefs and values unless they can prove that it is an “inherent requirement” of the job.

‘The Victorian Government is depicting this Bill as merely a protection against discrimination in religious settings,’ the Archbishop said. ‘Sadly, however, this is a seriously far-reaching law that will limit faith-based organisations from managing employment matters according to their faith, conscience and values.

“The legislation is a serious overreach of the Government into the rightful freedoms of Victorian faith-based organisations.”

Archbishop Comensoli said this was ‘another sad example of people of faith and the freedom of religious organisations being unfairly targeted.’

‘Across all areas of society, Catholics run organisations with an open and inclusive commitment to people in their care. Our excellence in the provision of services is recognised by many – evident in the large numbers of students attending Catholic schools and educational institutions.

‘Currently, Catholic organisations, including our schools can freely employ those who share our religious beliefs, values and ethos. However, the Victorian Government has introduced legislation seeking to change this,’ Archbishop Comensoli said.

The Archbishop warned that if the Bill passes, it will affect all religious organisations across Victoria, who will be limited in their ability to employ staff, run their schools and provide other services that adhere to their faith, values and ethos.

‘The example has been given that in a religious school, the only roles where religious beliefs might be an “inherent requirement” of the job include positions of senior leadership (e.g., a principal) or religious education teachers.

“What the Government fails to understand is that faith is holistic – it affects the way we see the world and conduct our lives. Faith is part of the very make-up and fabric of each school. It is entirely reasonable and fair that religious bodies should be able to preference those who share their beliefs and values in their own private employment matters.”

‘I do not believe it is in anyone’s interest in the long term for a secular power to make such a determination for religious organisations. The role or importance of faith in a faith-based organisation cannot be relegated to a bureaucrat or a secular court.’

The Archbishop encouraged the community to join him in expressing their concerns about the Bill and the introduction of an “inherent requirement” test by contacting local and federal Members of Parliament.

The Bill is expected to be debated in Parliament next week with the Government already expressing its full support to the proposals.

One thought on “Proposed Bill a ‘serious overreach’: Archbishop Comensoli

  1. My name is Greg Howell, I have lived a full life with a host of experiences that not many would have had, if they didn’t have the same opportunities afforded to me from: serving 20 years in the military, working in both China and Indonesia, having lived and working in many places across Australia, and having been an active member of the Catholic Church in many of those places.

    The exception was put in place to protect the children of faith based schools for the influence of those from the secular groups whom, for whatever reason, choose to live a life that is not aligned with that of the faith taught in those schools. But the “current” government in now changing that to include all faith based Organisations…

    The “Current” Victorian Government is proposing changes to the Equal Opportunity Act (2010). This law currently allows religious bodies and schools to discriminate against people based on sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status and gender identity. These qualities will be referred to as “personal characteristics” throughout the fact sheet and the Bill.

    The “Current” State Government have stated on the Premier of Victoria website that:
    “The Government today introduced the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 which will better protect LGBTIQ+ Victorians working within religious organisations and schools.” which is, in my opinion, putting the feelings and believes of 3 to 4% of the Australian population (based on data from the Rainbow Health Vic website) ahead of the children at faith based schools . . . .

    The government of this day, is allowing itself to be controlled by a lobby group that, at best, represent 3 to 4% of AUSTRALIANS (the Victoria numbers are not available). BUT of that 3 to 4%, it would only be, in my opinion, 5% of that group that would be “pushing” for the change in the legislation. Thus allowing an “activist” to apply for a job at a school or faith based organisation, and being unsuccessful in achieving employment, then have a “case” to bring to a Court for discrimination.

    One of the big issues, is the ability to interpret the phase of: “inherent requirement”. The faith based organisations were able to decline the offer of new employees, if the prospective held “philosophies” or live style choices were not “in tune” with that of the employer, NOT any more. But there does appear to be some “wiggle room”. . .

    Below is an extract from the speech of Minister Natalie Hutchins (which is worthy of a complete read) of the second reading of the proposed Bill that can explain the requirements, BUT please read what is hidden at the bottom of the Bill:

    And for what is hidden in the Bill:
    “Discrimination by individuals on the basis of religion:
    Finally, the Bill will also remove a general exception contained in section 84 available to individuals (rather than religious bodies or schools) to discriminate on the basis of religion. This provision is not found in anti-discrimination legislation in other Australian jurisdictions. In most cases, the areas of public life regulated by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 are participated in by organisations, rather than individuals. Australian law allows for conscientious objections through specific, legislated provisions in special circumstances, for example, allowing conscientious objections by medical practitioners in relation to abortion and voluntary assisted dying, or by religious marriage celebrants in relation to same-sex marriages. The removal of this general exception is important to ensure that actions justified on the grounds of religious belief do not undermine equality before the law generally, and equality for the LGBTIQ+ community in particular.”

    The Requirements Explanation:
    “Inherent requirements:
    The first element requires that conformity with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion be an inherent requirement of the job. The inherent requirement test (sometimes called the “genuine occupational requirement” test) is a well-understood concept used in almost all discrimination legislation across Australia, as well as internationally. All employers in Victoria, including religious bodies and schools, already need to apply an inherent requirements test for employment in relation to disability discrimination.

    The inherent requirements test provides a flexible approach for religious bodies and schools, recognising the diversity among these organisations in Victoria. Whether conformity with the doctrines of a particular religion is an inherent requirement of a role will depend on the context of the school, how it practices its religion and the nature of the specific role.

    In most religious schools it would be an inherent requirement of a religious education position that employees must closely conform to the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the school’s religion. On the other hand, a support position, such as a gardener or maintenance worker, is unlikely to have religious conformity as an inherent requirement of their role.

    Religious schools may set the inherent requirements of various roles in accordance with their ethos and approach. For instance, some schools may require a wide range of teaching staff to have religious pastoral roles, in which strict doctrinal conformity is required. Others may designate specific positions as largely responsible for conveying religious beliefs, such as chaplains. Many will require executive staff to conform to the religion more closely than other staff. Religious bodies and schools can meet the inherent requirements test by considering the importance and extent of religious conformity required by each role in the context of their overall operations.

    The inherent requirements test must be assessed based on the role in practice, rather than how it is described on paper. For example, a religious school may state in a job description that conformity with certain religious doctrines is an inherent requirement of a role, for teachers who lead religious devotions. However, if a teacher is never required to lead devotions, it is unlikely that the religious beliefs could be shown to be a genuine inherent requirement of their role. This highlights that inherent requirements must be assessed based on how the job is actually performed, rather than requirements which are simply asserted to be necessary.

    Another important factor in determining whether conformity with religion is an inherent requirement of a role is to consider how the requirement is applied to other employees with similar roles at the religious body or school. For example, a religious school may state that it is an inherent requirement of all teaching positions that conformity with the religion of the school is required because all teachers carry pastoral care duties. However, it may be that for various reasons, the school hires several teachers who are unable to meet this inherent requirement. This would suggest that religious conformity may not be an actual inherent requirement of the teaching roles. While the school may prefer that its teachers conform with the religion, the test is not about preference, but a genuine inherent requirement in practice.”

    So, to protect our schools and organisation, we must be able to prove in a Court of Law, that the job (Maths, Science, Geography, History, etc teacher) may have an “inherent requirement” that is consistent with that of the faith, based on that of the organisation. I believe that, when a teacher leads the class in prayer prior to the start of the lesson, it would be an inherent requirement of the job.

    While I believe that the Catholic Church has, and has always, shown empathy to those from “outside” the faith, and I know that it shall continue long after I have passed from this earth.

    My questions to those who are pushing for this change is:
    Why? The Governments Answer: This legislation follows legislation that we introduced in 2016, to reinstate protections for LGBTIQ+ Victorians that were removed by the former Coalition government. We re-iterated our commitment to remove this discriminatory barrier for LGBTIQ+ Victorians as part of the 2018 election. This Bill delivers on that pledge, and I’m glad to say that this Bill will set a new standard for anti-discrimination protections in Australia.

    Where is the evidence to support the change? Hmmm, only an election promise . . . ?

    IF there is evidence available, who are the groups responsible for that discrimination?

    If this is approved by the Senate, then we shall all need to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in helping us navigate this new world of anti-faith.

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