Victorian Government aims to undermine faith, conscience

17 Nov 2021

By Contributor

Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, Australia, pictured during an interview in Rome in 2019. Archbishop Comensoli has last week written to all members of the Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Melbourne expressing grave concerns about new legislation which will seriously diminish the rights of religious organisations. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan.

Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli has said a new law aimed at religious organisations is “one more unneeded attack by the Government upon people of faith in Victoria”.

Archbishop Comensoli said the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 will seriously diminish the rights of religious organisations to manage their activity according to their faith and conscience.

“People of faith have stood shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Victorians through this pandemic and shown extraordinary care for the vulnerable and those facing isolation, loneliness and great fear,” Archbishop Comensoli said.

“I am deeply concerned that, as people of faith emerge from the pandemic, the Government should choose this time to start telling them what should be important to them in their own faith-based organisations.

“Across multiple sectors, Catholics run organisations with an open and inclusive commitment to all people in their care, regardless of their personal circumstances. Suddenly the Government is determined to tell them whether or not religious identity should be a factor in managing employment matters.”

Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli, centre with Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, left and Michael Byrnes of Agana, Guam, pictured leaving in procession after attending Pope Francis’ celebration of Mass marking the feast of Sts Peter and Paul in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican June 29, 2019. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.

The law proposes a new “inherent requirement” test to replace current exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, which means an employer will have to prove that a staffing role had an inherent religious requirement.

“I am particularly worried about Catholic schools which have been a beacon of trust and welcome for so many precisely because they are run on the basis of Catholic faith and values,” Archbishop Comensoli said.

“It should not be up to a court or a government bureaucrat to determine what constitutes faithful conduct in a religious context.”

Archbishop Comensoli writes to Catholic community

Archbishop Comensoli has last week written to all members of the Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Melbourne expressing grave concerns about the new legislation.

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,’ Archbishop Comensoli 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.

“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.

Archbishop Comensoli 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 (eg, a principal) or religious education teachers.

Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli, centre right, and other Australian bishops leave after concelebrating Mass at the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome in 2019. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.

“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,” Archbishop Comensoli said.

“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.”

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