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.

Incoherent ‘inherent requirement’ test

Two months ago I sat in a packed room where Mr Tim Wilson MP and Rev Dr Michael Bird addressed the topic, ‘Freedom of Speech in Australia today’. During the conversation Mike Bird said that the next issue facing Victorians will be in relation to religious schools and discrimination policies. This week my non-prophetic friend was proven to be right: the Victorian Government announced that it will reintroduce the ‘inherent requirement’ test, impacting whom religious organisations may and may not employ.

The test was originally introduced by the previous Labor Government in 2010, but was removed in 2011 by the Coalition Government.

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This explanation is offered on the Premier’s website:

“The test was scrapped by the former Coalition Government in 2011, which left many Victorians vulnerable to discrimination when seeking employment with religious bodies or schools, particularly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The inherent requirements test will limit the ability of a religious body or school to rely on a religious defence to discriminate in the area of employment because of a person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or differing religious beliefs.

The defence will be limited to circumstances where religious beliefs are an inherent requirement of a job, and an employee or job applicant does not meet the requirement because of a specific personal attribute.

The test will not force religious bodies or schools to employ people with attributes that conflict with its religious beliefs and principles. However, it will require them to demonstrate a necessary connection between their religious beliefs and the requirements of a specific role.”

This latest move from the Victorian Government is disturbing, although not surprising. I appreciate and at times laud the Government’s move to ensure particular social minority groups are protected, including LGBTI people. But one may be forgiven for concluding that some of the extreme measures have less to do with the principle of inclusion, and more about exclusion.

For example, removing SRI from schools had nothing to do with advocating sexual equality. Indeed, the list of anti-religious of measures is growing, and one can only wonder where and if Mr Andrews’ will draw the line. Over the last two years many Victorian families have come to feel as though they are being pushed away from public schools, and now it appears as though the same Government is set on invading the religious school space also, and that of any religious organisation. It is yet unclear whether Churches will be protected from this test or not.

The inherent requirement test is a deeply flawed concept:

First, the notion of ‘inherent requirement’ depends upon imposing a secularist view of religion. The test presumes a separation between what is considered spiritual work and what is not. It is surmising, for example, that a gardener or an office administrator is not doing specifically Christian work because they are not teaching the Bible, etc. This is a false dichotomy that does not exist in Christian faith, nor in many other religions. Every role is an expression of commitment to God and is a valuable part of the whole which serves a common purpose.

Second, this test wrongly assumes that because a particular role does not have a direct theological or spiritual teaching component, it therefore does not matter whether the employee agrees with the organisation’s ethos, beliefs, and vision. This is purely illogical. Why would any organisation or company employ a person who does not support the basic values and vision of that association?

Equal Opportunity doesn’t mean sameness. I’m not doubting the Victorian Government’s commitment to ‘equal opportunity’, but their paradigm of equal opportunity is flawed, and represents an ethic that is not ultimately about diversity, but about conformity.

During that cold July night when Michael Bird pre-empted Mr Andrews’ announcement this week, Tim Wilson offered an idea which deserves consideration as the Victorian Parliament wrestles with this legislation. Mr Wilson believes that the question of whom religious organisations employ is better dealt with through contracts rather than through law. He said,

“In terms of hiring and firing people, I don’t think it’s best dealt with through law. I fully accept that religious institutions have a right to preserve the environment and the value systems of people who embody those value systems.”

“It is the right of children and parents, to raise their children in the culture, traditions and customs to which they hold dear.”

Finally, the question needs to be asked, is it reasonable for a Government to determine what constitutes required religious adherence or not? Is it the Government’s role to dictate theology and ministry practice? Does the Government have the necessary skills and knowledge required to adequately understand theology and therefore make the right judgement regarding the question of what is inherent?