Religious freedom under threat

12 Mar 2009

By The Record

The religious freedom of Catholic institutions, especially educational ones, is under threat in Victoria, says Melbourne Archdiocesan Human Resources manager Tom Carr.

By Anthony Barich

Mr Carr and 50 religious leaders met on February 10 responding to a
call by the Australian Christian Lobby and the Church and Nation
Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria to discuss the Review
of the Exceptions and Exemptions under the Equal Opportunity Act by the
Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee.
Mr Carr told The Record that all Christian and Jewish representatives
at the gathering, chaired by Catholic Bishop Christopher Prowse, were
concerned about religious freedoms under the existing Act, which will
not be given a conscience vote when it is read into Victoria’s
The biggest concern, Mr Carr says, is for Catholic education.
Catholic schools are currently able to insist that its employees uphold
the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family, but “there are moves
to remove or diminish this freedom, limited as it might be”, he said,
after three previous reviews of the Act proved fruitless.
“We wanted to ensure that all religious leaders were aware of the need
to focus in on this parliamentary review, that it required their
attention, and sooner rather than later,” Mr Carr said.
“As legislation to come into parliament will not be a conscience vote
but determined in the party room, so the argument needs to be done
before it gets into parliament.
“We’re concerned because the abortion law reform bill of last year in
fact denies medical practitioners a freedom of conscience to act in
accordance with their religious principles in that they are not
prepared to conduct an abortion. They must give an effective referral,
so the fact that the Bill got through is a watering down of religious
“If it can happen in that act, is that thinking going to flow over into the equal opportunity act?”
Asked what his realistic expectations are of the outcome, he said:
“You’d have your concerns, but whether those concerns will be realised
or not we don’t know.”
There are similar concerns for a Bill that the South Australian
Government introduced into parliament in November 26 to update the 1984
Equal Opportunity Act.
The proposed Equal Opportunity (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill 2008
proposes a number of changes to the State’s anti-discrimination laws.
The Bill was first introduced to Parliament in 2006, but was scrapped
as it soon became clear that the Liberals and the minor parties would
not support it.
Some clauses from the first draft that were seen as overly restrictive
have been removed after significant opposition, including an incitement
to hatred act, which could have made priests who preach against
practicing homosexuality subject to legal action.
A requirement in the first draft of the Bill for schools lodge their
policy on refusing to hire people on sexual grounds with the Equal
Opportunity Commissioner for approval has also been scrapped.
Schools now will retain the legal right to refuse employment on the
basis of sexuality but will need to state their policy on their website.
A major concern, however, remains with three clauses that give the
Equal Opportunity Commissioner power to initiate investigations and
complaints, “even when no complaint has been lodged”.
The Bill now adds some new grounds of discrimination, including caring
responsibilities, mental illness and identity of spouse. It also brings
sexual harassment laws into line with Commonwealth law and their
coverage is expanded.
The former exemption that allowed healthcare providers to discriminate
on sexuality or marital-status grounds in hiring staff and in providing
services will be removed.
It will no longer be lawful, for example, for a Church-run hospital to refuse to employ a homosexual doctor or nurse.
In another blow for the pro-life movement in South Australia, it looks
certain that the Statutes Amendment (Prohibition of Human Cloning for
Reproduction and Regulation of Research Involving Human Embryos) Bill
should pass by the end of March despite significant efforts from the
pro-life community and churches in a protracted debate since being
introduced into parliament in 2007.