Secularism and the Equal Opportunity Amendment

At the end of last year, the Baillieu government was unexpectedly elected. One of the most disturbing proposals to come forth from this new governments has been proposed alterations to the Equal Opportunity Act. For the Victorian Secular Lobby the most significant changes are exemptions to the Act for religious bodies and schools. According to the Liberal Party the proposed amendment removes the "inherent requirement" test that would have forced faith-based schools and institutions to hire staff fundamentally opposed to the school's values.

This statement, reinterpreted in a secular manner, means that that religious schools and other institutions will have the ability to exclude people from employment where their private lives are considered incompatible with religious doctrine, regardless of their ability to perform the required task. The proposed amendments specifically grant religious organisations the ability to engage in discrimination in areas of: "religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity" to quote the original act (section 82 (2) and 83 (2)). Previous legislation only allowed for such aspects of an applicant's employment to be considered when it was relevant.

The amendment is simply unacceptable in any society that respects the equal opportunity and the separation of church and state. Firstly because such discrimination is simply wrong, secondly because it breaches the principle that all legal institutions should be treated equally, thirdly because it endorses vile bigotry (but only when framed in a religious perspective), and fourthly because it grants religious organisations the justification to pry into the private lives of their employees and potential employees. It is particularly troubling to grant religious groups this power, having received vast sums of taxpayer monies under the guise of charitable endeavours, will be able to use such special legal powers.

The battle over the legislation seems that it will be a long and difficult one. Initially, the legislation was lost because one of the coalition MPs failed to turn up for the vote. The speech of the Coalition MPs is an outstanding display of wilful ignorance of the very legislation they proposed. Following the bill's defeat the government decided to ignore their own standing orders and re-introduce the legislation by using federal parliamentary standing orders, which it succeeded in doing.

It is impossible to forget that the last Liberal premier of the state, Jeff Kennett, compared homosexuality with paedophilia. It seems that the Liberal Party, a mis-named organisation if there ever was one, certainly has a lot to learn about equal opportunity, discrimination and the separation of church and state.


From The UK... No, really?

In a submission to the Parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee, which started holding oral hearings for its inquiry into the big society agenda this week, the Unitarian Church has warned that “faith based welfare” could lead to discrimination against marginalised groups.

The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches warns: “Whilst the churches and other faith groups have always been active in the Big Society, we have concerns that some religious groups that seek to take over public services, particularly at local level, could pursue policies and practices that result in increased discrimination against marginalised groups, particularly in service provision and the employment of staff.”