Australian archbishop pushes back on bid to limit religious freedom

News: Australia

The Archbishop of Melbourne has warned that proposed changes to anti-discrimination laws are a threat to religious freedom and the identity of Catholic schools and institutions in the Australian state of Victoria.

Archbishop Peter Comensoli said that the Victorian government’s proposed changes to the state’s Equality Opportunity Act of 2010 will undercut the ability of religious organizations to manage their operations according to the dictates of their faith and conscience.

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The changes, announced by the government last week, aim to curtail existing exemptions to anti-discrimination law granted to religious groups. 

“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,” the government website claims.

“For example, a religious school may be able to fire an administrative assistant who comes out as gay, or gets divorced, if the school thinks that it is necessary to avoid injuring the beliefs of other members of the religion,” the government’s explainer said.

The government says it wants the law changed so that religious exemptions to hiring law will only apply to positions where “conformity with religious beliefs is an inherent requirement of the job,” a criterion which, Comensoli warned, would be determined outside the organization. 

In a statement released by the Archdiocese of Melbourne on Friday, Comensoli said that the proposed changes would mean Catholic bodies would be unable to decide for themselves when adhering to Church teaching was an “inherent requirement” for a position.

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

“Across multiple sectors, Catholics run organizations 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,” said Comensoli. 

The archbishop said that “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. 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 organizations.”

The proposed changes to the law would also mean the Church would lose religious freedom protections related to a range of “personal characteristics,” which are defined by the government as “sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status and gender identity.” Catholic schools and charitable organizations that receive state funding would not be able to make employment decisions based on these characteristics.

This would mean that, for example, teachers in same-sex unions who are Catholic would fall outside of religious liberty exemptions.

“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,” Comensoli said in response to the government plans.

The state of Victoria has a history of clashing with the Church on issues of religious freedom.

In February, the state passed a law which made it a crime to “engage in a practice” directed towards changing or suppressing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, which critics warned treated ordinary, religiously-based pastoral, spiritual, and mental health counseling as akin to so-called “conversion therapy.”

Speaking to The Pillar in February, Comensoli said that Victoria was at the leading edge of progressivist legislation in Australia, advancing laws which were frequently at odds with religious freedom.

“I would say that there is a genuine ignorance at play here around Christians, religious liberty, and general freedoms,” he said. “There is a great deal of ignorance about faith in Parliamentarians generally these days, I think.”

“There is certainly a genuine question about how well religious freedom is understood and is protected, both in Victoria and in Australia more generally” said Comensoli. “Like all human freedoms, the freedom of religion needs to be a protection, not just an exemption.”

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