Victorian “Conversion Practices” Prohibition introduced

A bill dealing with the topic of what elsewhere has been called “conversion therapy” has been introduced into the Victorian Legislative Assembly: the  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. Along with the Bill, there is an important Explanatory Memorandum which gives insight into what the Victorian Government thinks the Bill means.

The Bill is lengthy and complex and will warrant a great deal of careful study. But in this initial post I want to highlight some seriously concerning features. It seems at least arguable that the Bill will make it unlawful for some churches and other religious bodies to openly teach and proclaim the doctrines of their faith in Victoria.

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Vilification complaint against Israel Folau dismissed

Those who follow public matters in Australia will remember the controversy in 2019 surrounding controversial comments made by celebrity rugby player Israel Folau. See here and here for my discussion of the legal issues around Mr Folau’s claim that he had been dismissed partly on account of his religious beliefs. That claim was later settled before proceeding to trial, in December 2019 .

In an interesting sequel, Mr Folau was then sued by Mr Gary Burns for “homosexual vilification” under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. Mr Burns’ claim was rejected by the President of the Anti-Discrimination Board in April this year. Now his appeal against this decision to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal has been dismissed, and the claim will go no further- see Burns v Folau [2020] NSWCATAD 287 (18 November 2020).

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Will laws banning “conversion therapy” ban teaching the Bible’s views on sex?

Australia now has two local Acts banning so-called “gay conversion therapy”, in Queensland and the ACT. An article on the ABC website on November 8, 2020 reports: “Gay conversion practices to be outlawed by the Victorian Government“. But this latest article demonstrates that some activists calling for these laws want to go well beyond outlawing horrible practices like shock therapy or “aversion” therapy. Those quoted in the article want to ban “conversations with religious leaders” on topics of sexuality. Such a law would be a gross violation of free speech and religious freedom rights, as well as an attack on those experiencing same-sex attraction who may want to be helped to live in accordance with religious teachings on these issues. Laws like this ought not to be passed.

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The “ordinary meaning” of sex

In a controversial decision, the United States Supreme Court has held by 6-3, in Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia (No. 17–1618; June 15, 2020), that the prohibition of “sex discrimination” in the workplace in Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 means that an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity”. Both majority and minority focus strongly on the issues of how statutes should be interpreted. In my view the concerns expressed by the minority about the “literal” approach of the majority judgment are well-justified, as are the possible detrimental implications for religious freedom in the USA. I will also comment briefly on how similar issues would be resolved in Australia.

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The Religious Discrimination Bill and legal practitioners

The second draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill continues to generate much debate. I am presenting a paper to the Newcastle Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship which gives an overview of the Bill, responds briefly to some of the recent criticisms, and explores some of the implications of the Bill for legal practitioners. The paper can be downloaded here:

Submission on Second Draft of Religious Discrimination Bill

As noted previously, the Commonwealth Government released a Second Exposure Draft of their proposed Religious Discrimination Bill in December 2019, inviting public comment by Friday 31st January 2020. I have now provided my submission on this draft, which is linked here for those who would like to consult it:

In short, I think this legisation is an important step in improving protection of religious freedom in Australia, and the second draft is an improvement on the first. But I recommend some clarification or change of approach in the following areas:

  • Defining Religious Belief – I recommend that the way that the courts should determine whether a claim to religious belief is justified should focus on sincerity rather than courts examining “reasonableness” ; I also think that the bar of “unlawfulness” determining what beliefs cannot be protected at all needs to be raised to mainly cover serious criminal offences;
  • Who is protected by the Bill? – I suggest that the Bill ought to protect religious groups as well as individuals; in this context I think that the limits on protection based on the concept of “commercial activity” need to be removed, though I agree that the kind of organisations protected need to be limited in other ways;
  • Who is bound by the Bill? – I agree that, as at present, both individuals and groups should be bound not to religiously discriminate; but I think the exemption given to government bodies from the provisions relating to religious free speech outside working hours should be rolled back;
  • The limits of protection – I argue that cases where religious freedom can be over-ridden should be limited to those where it is “necessary” in protection of important fundamental rights, as spelled out in the ICCPR art 18(3);
  • Protecting religious free speech – I argue that the good initiative protecting statements of religious belief in clause 42 should also be extended to “vilification” claims, so long as they do not contravene the limits set out in the clause itself and defined by the Commonwealth;
  • Conscientious objection by health practitioners  – I argue that the complicated provisions protecting conscientious objection to certain procedures by health practitioners need to be improved;
  • The Religious Freedom Commissioner – I support this new position but argue that the person concerned should be clearly shown to understand the issues facing religious citizens; 
  • A note on charities – I support the current provision ensuring that advocacy of traditional views on the nature of marriage not disqualify a body from being recognised as a charity, and suggest a further change to make this even clearer.

Churches, Same-sex ministries and the law

I am delivering a seminar paper on the topic “Churches, Same-sex ministries and the law: discrimination and religious freedom” on August 20. For those who are interested, there is a copy of the paper here:

Dominic Steele, the organiser for the day, has kindly made this video of the presentation available as well: