Government bows to religious right
September 27, 2009
ATTORNEY-GENERAL Rob Hulls will today announce a controversial compromise struck with the state’s religious groups that will allow them to continue to discriminate against gays and lesbians, single mothers and people who hold different spiritual beliefs.
In a move that has delighted religious groups but angered gay activists and discrimination experts, Mr Hulls will protect the right of hundreds of church-run organisations – including schools, hospitals and welfare services – to refuse to employ or provide services to people who they believe may undermine their beliefs.
Under the deal, Mr Hulls will allow church groups to continue discriminating on the grounds of sex, sexuality, marital and parental status and gender identity. But they will be unable to discriminate on the basis of race, disability, age, physical features, political beliefs or activity, or breastfeeding.
The decision has dismayed groups that argued that the review was a chance to eliminate entrenched discrimination in Victoria, which has more exemptions to its equal opportunity law than any other state.
Leading discrimination law expert Professor Margaret Thornton said it was a win for fundamentalist religious groups. ”In terms of a person’s private life … their sexual preference or marital status really has nothing to do with their ability to perform a job. Being able to discriminate on marital status is particularly absurd. It is really out of date. It really amounts to the policing of women because the focus is on single mothers, not on men.”
Religious groups have mounted a campaign to save their exemptions, which mean, for example, that conservative religious schools can refuse to hire single mothers or gays – even as cleaners – and that an Islamic organisation can decline to employ a Christian.
Mr Hulls told The Sunday Age that the changes, which pre-empt a parliamentary committee report due within weeks, will limit how church groups discriminate. If a religious welfare agency refused to offer services to a same-sex couple, for instance, the agency would have to demonstrate how this action conformed with its religious doctrine. If a religious school rejected an atheist for a receptionist’s position, the school must show why a person needed to adhere to certain religious beliefs.
But it will still fall to the victim of discrimination to make a complaint and force the religious body to justify its actions. The changes will be part of legislation introduced early next year.
The compromise means that in the lead-up to next year’s election, Labor can make peace with conservative and religious groups, already at odds with the Government over the decriminalisation of abortion. Mr Hulls said the Government never intended to restrict religious freedom in Victoria. He said the changes struck the right balance between religious freedoms and Victorians’ ability to be free of discrimination: ”We have decided to narrow the broad exemptions that currently exist but also ensure that bodies maintain their right to religious freedom.”
Mr Hulls’ announcement was immediately endorsed at the highest levels of the Victorian Catholic Church, with Archbishop Denis Hart hailing the decision as ”striking a fair and correct balance” between competing rights. The Australian Christian Lobby’s Victorian director, Rob Ward, also welcomed the decision.
The Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby’s convener, Hayley Conway, said it was concerning that religious groups holding Government contracts for welfare work were still exempted from the discrimination laws. ”We would have preferred to see Rob Hulls take a much stronger step on these issues,” she said.
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission chief executive officer Helen Szoke said the move was a good step, but ”a whole section of the community is still left out”. She hoped that eventually the community would understand there was no reason to treat people differently because of their sexual preferences or marital status.
Mr Hulls said he acted before a parliamentary committee reviewing the exemptions had reported because of the ”high level of interest and concern” about the Government’s intentions.