The Victorian Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 (Vic) (which I will call the “CSP” law for short) passed the Upper House on 4 Feb, 2021. As I write it seems not to have yet received the Royal Assent and become an “Act” but that will no doubt happen soon. The government has signalled that the legislation will not come into operation for another 12 months (see the final sentence in this article.)
My previous posts (see here for the most recent) have expressed grave concerns about the effect of the law on religious freedom and specifically on the freedom of parents and others to encourage children to live in accordance with Biblical standards of sexual behaviour. It is astonishing that the Bill was rushed through Parliament in the face of concerns also being expressed by the Law Institute of Victoria, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). (See this excellent post from Murray Campbell noting these issues.)
There are, it seems, very few legal avenues available to challenge the many problems created by this law. But in this post I want to suggest one which may be available- where the CSP Law purports to take away rights of religious freedom granted by the Commonwealth Parliament.
The NSW Government is currently inviting comment on draft legislation entitled the Children’s Guardian Amendment (Child Safe Scheme) Bill 2020. The legislation has been drawn up in response to the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and as well as governing “secular” agencies caring for children, it will mandate a new scheme for child protection covering “religious bodies” (see cl 8AA definition of “child safe organisation”, para (c)). The Bill is generally a good idea, but I want to suggest one amendment which will be needed for it to properly protect religious freedom.
Many commentators concerned with free speech and religious freedom have expressed serious concerns about the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 (Vic), now awaiting its second reading debate in the Victorian Legislative Council (which could resume on February 2, having swiftly passed all stages in the Legislative Assembly on 10 December 2020). Others who are sympathetic to the aims of the Bill have suggested that these concerns are over-stated- that the relevant criminal offences created by the Act are only applicable where “harm” or “serious harm” can be shown to a criminal standard, and hence that there will be few such cases. For example, an editorial from The Age which supports the Bill says:
It is important to note the government’s assurance that only in cases where such practices could be shown beyond a reasonable doubt to have caused injury or serious injury would they be considered offences under this legislation.
The Age, Editorial, Dec 8, 2020
But the scope of this legislation goes well beyond the specific “injury” offences that are created (while these are problematic enough.) The Bill creates a powerful set of bureaucratic mechanisms by which religious groups presenting the classic teachings of their faith may be subject to investigation and “re-education” by human rights officers. It arguably makes the presentation of some aspects of Biblical teaching unlawful if the aim of that teaching is to encourage someone to follow that teaching in their own life. Despite the appearance of addressing horrific and oppressive quasi-psychological procedures inflicted on young people, the Bill goes well beyond this laudable goal, and will make it unlawful to provide assistance in obeying the Bible to those who explicitly and with full understanding request such help. Enactment of this legislation would be a serious mistake.
This is just a brief update to my last post about the recently released Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. I have since had an opportunity to read some other documents released to the Victorian Parliament when the Bill was introduced, which give some more insight into what the Victorian Government views as the impact of the Bill on churches and other religious groups.
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.
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.
Australia has seen two recent initiatives by local Parliaments aimed at what are often called “conversion therapy” practices. No-one supports coercive electro-shock or other oppressive practices imposed on someone without their consent, to change their sexual preferences or identity. But the problem with the recent legislative proposals is that the laws do not target these practices alone (as to which it is hard to find any evidence of them occurring in Australia in recent years), but seem to reach further and to prevent religious groups sharing the teaching of their faith.
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.
In NSW a private member’s Bill designed to improve complaint handing procedures in relation to allegations of discrimination and vilification is being considered by a Committee of the Legislative Council. As a number of the issues have arisen in cases where comments have been made from a religious perspective, Freedom for Faith have made a submission on the Bill (the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Complaint Handling) Bill 2020). As a board member of Freedom for Faith I had some input into the submission, which for those interested can be downloaded here:
The Committee’s home page indicates that submissions closed today (April 26), but I suspect that if others wished to make submissions on the legislation and given the disruptions caused by the current situation, the Committee may be willing to accept late submissions.