Our Rubicon River

Should a cricket club have freedom to appoint persons who share the values of their club?

Should a political party have liberty to pre-select individuals who support and will promote their policies?

Should not a corporation employ professionals who will abide by the values and vision of that institution?

For most of our nation’s history Churches and Governments have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship; understanding their distinct roles while together serving for the good of society. Both have had their failings as well as making enormous contributions to building our society, but Australians have always been careful not to confuse the two.  Tomorrow (Tuesday 8th November) this judicious relationship may come to an end as the Victorian Government proposes a hostile takeover of all religious organisations.

The Victorian Legislative Council will tomorrow debate and vote on the proposed Inherent Requirements test. The purpose of this amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act is to require religious organisations to demonstrate that their employees must necessarily subscribe to the beliefs and values of that church, school, or charity. 

Religious organisations currently have freedom to employ persons who affirm the beliefs and practices shared by that organisation; this is only sensible. Should this legislation pass, a tribunal will be appointed by the Government who will determine what constitutes inherent requirements for all religions across the State. In other words, the Government is posturing itself as a teacher and arbiter of theology, with power to inform Churches, Synagogues, and religious schools whom they are to employ.

The Government has presented the amendment as a natural extension in the fight for equality, but the reality is quite different. Labor wants sameness not equality. This Bill will inevitably work against a pluralist and diverse society, and instead demand that Victorians fall into line with a rigid and historically dubious view of secularism.

Dr Michael Bird was right when he called out the inherent requirement test as an example of Secularized Erastianism, a philosophy which asserts that the State shapes and controls religious belief and practice.

I can imagine some secularists will be ecstatic at hearing the Government’s plan to further diminish religious freedom in Victoria, but is there not an air of hypocrisy in all this? Do atheistic humanists really want the Government functioning as bishops over churches, religious schools, and charities? Do nonbelievers genuinely think they have the academic credentials, expertise, and the right to define the theological parameters for synagogues and churches, explicating what is inherently required of that religion or not?

As Dr Bird notes, the problem is that “demonstrate a necessary connection” between beliefs and roles is notoriously subjective. There are no objective criteria here since beliefs and roles will vary from religion to religion and from organization to organization. So who is going to decide when a “necessary connection” exists between beliefs and roles and exactly how they will decide?’

The ‘inherent requirement’ test is all the more ironic, given how the Andrews’ Government has spent the last two years introducing several policies designed to push out Christian involvement from the public square, and now they are intent on invading religious spaces.

I cannot speak for all religious organisations, but when it comes to Christian Churches they are, for the most part, welcoming of anyone from any cultural, religious, sexual orientation background. I am not denying that there are appropriate rules and requirements for those who would serve in a formal capacity, and neither am I ignoring that associations can sometimes get it wrong. But the Christian Gospel is all about welcoming men and women who have no rights on God, no inherent claims on him, and yet in Jesus Christ we are lovingly forgiven and welcomed. This conviction has forged a tradition throughout the world of Christians starting not only churches, but also schools and hospitals and aged-care facilities, without which both our Government and society would collapse.

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Former Victorian Crown Counsel, Mark Sneddon, recently offered this caution against the Bill,

“The proposed bill amending the Equal Opportunity Act will not encourage Victorians to get along with each other. It won’t enable Victorians to live and let live. In fact, it is more likely to exacerbate division by creating legal weapons for forcing some voluntary associations to host or endorse views with which they deeply disagree.

Deep differences of moral vision will not be resolved by trying to legislate one view to supremacy and squashing others. Rather, we should accept that there are different views, and defend each other’s rights to hold and live out different views. Importantly, we should also commit to respectful communication so we can understand each other and agree how to live together peacefully with our differences.”

All the good that this Government may achieve is being swallowed up by their rigid and aggressive social agenda. This legislation is not only nonsensical, it is dangerous; they have reached the Rubicon and are intent on crossing it, and Victorians have no assurances that the Government will stop there.

As our representatives vote, I trust common sense will prevail and that freedom of association and religion will remain after November 8.

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5 thoughts on “Our Rubicon River

  1. Every time this religious freedom debate comes up it seems like I’m a lone voice in pointing out that religious freedom is secured and protected in our Constitution, Section 116, under Chapter 5 The States. S116 says: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
    Section 109 states: “When a law of a State is inconsistent with a law of the Commonwealth, the latter shall prevail, and the former shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid.”
    Now do you think there’s a relationship between a state law that infringes upon religious freedom and a section of the Constitution which specifically deals with the matter of religious freedom?
    Some people make the ludicrous claim that Section 116 only applies to the Commonwealth. No. Chapter 5 is dealing with the relationship between the Commonwealth and the States and the Constitution is the superior law.
    Victoria’s proposed law, as you point out, infringes upon religious freedom. So what is religioius freedom? It’s freedom of thought and conscience to recognise ideas beyond and above the state. Religious freedom is freedom per se. The ACL seems shy on tackling Section 116 related issues. But I think the time to do that is overdue.

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  2. Religious freedom is not an ultimate freedom. It is of course subject to the criminal laws of the state, for example, churches can be fined for polluting local environments like any common business.
    Therefore nonbelievers must accept the responsibility to police synagogues and churches alongside believers as common citizens of the state. This may well include whether to apply religious exemptions to discrimination legislation or for that matter whether to apply religious charitable status. Heck, the state determines whether or not a group of believers in something can claim the status of a religion under the law.
    Any suggestion that theological expertise is a requirement that must be met before legally circumscribing the activities of a religious organisation is frankly ill thought out. There are ways to be critical of the Victorian legislation without laying down the justification for the legal mysteriousness you seem to want to shroud churches with.

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  3. Longmal, the flaw in your argument is that section 109 applies to laws made by the commonwealth government. The constitution itself is not a law made by the Commonwealth government. It is the legal document created by an agreements of the states to establish the commonwealth (federal) government. Section 109 is true, but applies to legislation created by the Commonwealth government not to Section 116 of the Constitution. Section 116 is a restriction on the legislation the commonwealth government can create, not a restriction on state legislation.

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  4. Hi Murray. My suggestion is that you speak with recognised experts in the relevant field before writing about this complex area. A number of flawed assumptions and factual errors exist. Best regards,

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    • Angus, 3 points:
      1. How so? which flawed assumptions and factual errors? It helps to be specific, otherwise one doesn’t know what you are talking about.
      2. As it happens, myself and others have spoken with ‘experts’ as you put it (both legal and political). Indeed, these specific arguments were referenced in Parliament last week. There are at least some voices in Parliament who thought the arguments weighted and accurate.
      3. I have never claimed to be an expert legal field, not even a novice, but as a citizen I certainly have a right to speak to issues that concern me about my State. As a theologian one might even recognise a certain expertise in speaking to issues relating to religion and Government. None of this means one doesn’t get things wrong, I often do, but your comment makes unwarranted assumptions about the field of theology, and about the background to this piece.

      I look forward to hearing what you think are these ‘flawed assumptions and factual errors.

      Thanks Angus

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