For the third time, the Victorian Labor Government has moved dictate how religious schools and organisations can operate. The Lower House passed the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 by 53-22 votes.
This effect of the bill is that religious schools and organisations may be forced to hire staff who do not adhere to their religious beliefs and values. Christian schools are prohibited from requiring that all staff comply to a Christian code of behaviour.
For example, the new Section 82A has the effect that action could only be taken against a member of staff if the issue is related to the limited topic of “religious belief or activity” - not “lawful sexual behaviour.” In other words, staff can only be asked to step down if they denounce their Christian faith, not if they engage in an extramarital affair, or begin a de facto relationship.
Even if there is a basis for action under the narrow scope of “religious belief or activity,” the ability of church or school leaders to take action will be further reduced by the bill. The church or Christian school will need to establish that the required religious belief or activity is an “inherent requirement” of the staff member’s role and that any action to be taken against the staff or proposed staff member is “reasonable and proportionate.”
A secular tribunal or court may rule that it is more reasonable to give the staff member another role in the school rather than dismiss them, or not employ them. Staff members who are openly defying the church's or school’s code of conduct in relation to behaviour will continue to undermine the ethos of the church or school.
In the end, this new law will change the culture of churches and Christian schools, and make them vulnerable to litigation and attacks.
Sadly, the biggest losers from this bill are the fee-paying parents at Christian schools, who will lose their right to have their children educated according to their beliefs and modelled by all teachers and staff. Schools will no longer be able to provide an environment that is in line with their faith, as expected by parents.
Church ministers may also encounter great difficulties in pastoring their churches if they are forced to retain staff who are no longer living according to a biblical sexual ethic.
Why is the Labor Government so determined to pass such laws to restrict or suppress religion?
Perhaps, as the National Party leader Peter Walsh MP pointed out, the Labor Government is “going to war with the faith-based organisations of this state.”
Under this new law, the Labor Government is not only interfering with religious freedom, but intruding on the daily operation of every religious institution and breaching the principle of “separation of church and state.”
Ironically, as the Labor Government seeks to impose “inherent requirements” on these religious institutions, they are preserving their own right to employ staff who only adhere to their political values, as covered by Section 27 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. Again, as Peter Walsh MP pointed out, “This is discrimination at its highest.”
Fortunately, we have the Liberal National Parties who understand the importance of religious freedom. In 2011, the former Premier Ted Baillieu repealed a similar law. In 2016, another attempt by the Labor Government was defeated in the Upper House. In this third attempt, we are grateful that the Coalition is opposing and voting against the bill, consistent with their position in the past.
However, this is not without a big push from church leaders and Victoria's ACL supporters!
More than 12,800 ACL supporters emailed their MPs to oppose the bill
695 church leaders signed an Open Letter to key government leaders asking for the bill to be withdrawn
Thousands of Victorians left comments on the Facebook post that featured the Open Letter
Your actions resulted in the Coalition opposing the bill!
Peter Walsh MP mentioned in his speech, “Apart from the pandemic legislation, this issue would be generating the most emails to members of Parliament at the moment, because there are very great concerns from the faith-based organisations as to what this will do to their ability to deliver, particularly in schools.”
The Member of Sandringham, Brad Roswell MP also said, “I received a letter, as did other members, from some 695 priests, pastors, ministers, elders and deacons; all of them are greatly disturbed looking at how this bill will strip away religious freedom and cultural rights, putting their churches, Christian schools and organisations, in their view, at risk of litigation and making them vulnerable to attacks by people who disagree with their beliefs and value system.”
I praise God for the impact of your concerted efforts, and thank you for your willingness to stand up for our churches, schools and Christian organisations. Please take a moment to thank your Liberal/National MPs for voting against the bill, and continue to pray that the bill will be rejected by the Upper House.