Three controversial Victorian bills defeated

A brief update on the status of some proposed Victorian legislation I have previously mentioned as being a bad idea. It is good to see that all three bills have been defeated in the Victorian Parliament. Two of them would have interfered with the running of religious schools, as well as other religious organisations. The third would have created a range of problems in its interaction with Federal marriage law. 

1. Attacking the rights of religious schools to deal with students on the basis of their religious beliefs

The first of the defeated Bills was a Greens proposal to remove the right of religious schools to set appropriate standards of behaviour for students based on their religious ethos. In my previous post “Religious schools and discrimination in Victoria” (July 5, 2016) I noted that:

The Equal Opportunity Amendment (Equality for Students) Bill 2016 had its second reading in the Legislative Council on 22 June 2016.

This Bill was defeated recently in the Victorian Legislative Council, on 9 November 2016, by a margin of 32-6 (see a comment on this from the Australian Christian Lobby). If parents decide to send their children to a religious school, they have a right to expect that religious values will be implemented by the school, including the making of moral judgments on student sexual behaviour from time to time that may not accord with the majority “sexual orthodoxy” that “if it feels good, do it.”

2. Removing the right of religious schools and organisations to operate in accordance with faith

More recently, the Victorian Government proposed a bill to change the way that “balancing clauses” in discrimination legislation operate, so that a religious school or other religious organisation would no longer be able to implement their beliefs by only hiring staff who share their religious faith commitments. (See my previous comments on this legislation, “Victorian challenge to religious freedom of faith-based organisations“, Sept 8, 2016, and “Some of Victoria’s “inherent requirements” amendments may be unconstitutional“, Oct 2, 2016.)

After having been approved by the lower house, this Bill was also defeated this afternoon in the Legislative Council: see “Coalition and conservative crossbenchers unite to vote down equal rights bills” The Age, Dec 6, 2016. In my view this is a good outcome. While requiring that a religious organisation can choose to employ people from its own faith or moral stance only if the “inherent requirements” of the position require it, sounds reasonable, the important question is: who decides? Imposing the views of a secular tribunal as to what a position requires, onto a religious organisation, will strike at the core values which impel the organisation to operate.

3. Allowing easy “gender change” on birth certificates

The third bill was one which would have allowed a person to change the gender recorded on their birth certificate, with no medical intervention, once a year. While the bill did not represent such a direct attack on religious freedom as the other two, many of the people who were concerned by the changes to be made (though not all) would have been from religious communities with a strong belief that God calls people in most cases to live life out in the sexual identity into which they are born. The amendments would also, I argued in my previous post on the proposals, have created confusion in relation to the Commonwealth law governing marriage: see “Legal problems with Victoria’s new birth certificate gender laws” Nov 20, 2016. Again, the bill was defeated this afternoon, Dec 6.

Each of these three pieces of proposed legislation was in different ways part of an attack on the religious freedom of groups holding now-unorthodox views on sexual behaviour and sexual identity, based on their deeply held religious beliefs. It is sad that the “new morality” can be just as intolerant of dissenting views as the “old morality” was said to be by its opponents. It needs to be repeated that opposition to certain forms of sexual behaviour does not amount to “hate” of people who engage in that behaviour.

The law of Australia mostly recognises, through the “balancing clauses” which form an essential part of the various laws on discrimination, that allowing religious communities to operate in accordance with their beliefs is a fair way of recognising their religious freedom, while allowing the general community to benefit from their activities. It would benefit no-one to drive religious schools or hospitals or charities out of the public square by demanding that they compromise their principles in the way they care for students who have been entrusted to them, or organise their work. With the demise of these Victorian bills this balanced approach can continue in Victoria, as it generally does around the rest of Australian.