Victorian proposals to further limit religious freedom rights

The Victorian government has recently announced proposals to further limit important protections for religious freedom currently applicable to religious persons, bodies and schools in that State. The recent proposals have been put forward as dealing with the problem of religious schools sacking gay teachers, or expelling gay students: see this comment from The Age: “Religious schools in Victoria to lose the right to sack LGBTQ staff” (Sept 16, 2021). However, the details of the proposals hinted at in the recent “Fact Sheet” provided by the government go much further than this. In short, if the government pursues these proposals, they will

  • remove the right of any religious schools to make staffing decisions based on whether or not the staff member agrees with fundamental moral values being taught by the school, by narrowing the grounds on which a staff member can be hired or fired to “religious belief” alone (and it seems from the way this is worded in the document, to mean that this will apply even to someone hired as a “religious studies” teacher!) This rule will also apply to any organisation “providing services funded by the Victorian Government”.
  • impose on all schools and “religious bodies” (however that is defined) a rule that any staffing decision based on religious beliefs must be justified by demonstrating that the “inherent requirements” of the position require such a criterion; the implication being that a secular Victorian tribunal or court will have to determine whether such requirements are applicable by examining the religious beliefs of the body or school for themselves;
  • remove completely the current right enjoyed by private Victorian citizens under s 84 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 not to be sued for discrimination where they can demonstrate that their action was “reasonably necessary… to comply with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of their religion”.

I described these as “further” limits on religious freedom because the Victorian Parliament has recently enacted provisions concerned “conversion practices” which will substantially interfere with the rights of religious persons to teach the doctrines of their faith. (These provisions are due to commence in February 2022). Victoria, despite being one of only a few jurisdictions in Australia to have enacted apparently broad protections for religious freedom in its Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, s 14, continues to treat this right as one which can be downplayed and minimised.

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Fined for declining to make a “transgender cake”

A Colorado District Court has handed down a decision imposing a penalty on a cake-maker for declining to provide a cake designed to celebrate a “gender transition”, in Scardina v Masterpiece Cakeshop Inc (Denver District Ct, Co; 19CV32214, 15 June 2021). If the name of the shop sounds familiar, it will be to those interested in “law and religion” issues in recent years. Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakes business were previously sued, all the way to the US Supreme Court, because he had declined to make a cake designed to celebrate a same-sex wedding (for my comment on the Supreme Court decision, see “Colorado Wedding Cake Baker wins before US Supreme Court” (June 5, 2018). Sadly it seems that Mr Phillips will need to appeal this latest decision as well.

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Collision of laws: the impact of Commonwealth law on the Victorian CSP law

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.

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Child Safety and Religious Freedom

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.

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Victoria’s Conversion Practices Bill is as bad as they say it is

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.

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Further information about Victorian “Conversion Practices” Bill

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.

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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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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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Conversion Therapy laws and religious freedom

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.

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