Victorian Government to Discriminate against Faith-Based Schools

The past 18 months have proven difficult for all Victorians. During this time 100,000s of Victorians rely on and are grateful for the support, care, and education provided by religious organisations: from schools to counselling services, and more. Churches have continued to minster to people and offer hope where disease and lockdowns have darkened the lives of so many. During this same period, the Victorian Government has moved again and again to reduce the freedoms of religious organisations for the simple reasons: for holding beliefs and practices that align with the historical convictions of their religion. 

In February this year, the Government introduced and adopted the  Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020.  While Churches agreed with aspects of the Bill, the Government took the unnecessary approach (breaking with jurisdictions around the world) and defined conversion practices as broad as possible, such that normal Christian activities are now prohibited. The Act makes it illegal for Christians (and others) to pray with or speak with another person about sexuality and gender with the aim of persuading them according to Christian beliefs. The Government believes that these activities are so heinous that they have attached a prison sentence of up to 10 years for anyone breaking the law (this law comes into effect February 2022). 

This week, Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes announced another piece of legislation. This Bill will be brought to the Victorian Parliament before the end of year, limiting religious organisations in employing persons who subscribe to the values of the school, counselling centre, or aid agency.

The  Age reports,

“Religious schools in Victoria will be prohibited from sacking or refusing to employ teachers because of their sexuality or gender identity under sweeping social reforms proposed by the Andrews government.

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said legislation would be introduced later this year to close an “unfair, hurtful” gap in anti-discrimination laws that allow faith-based organisations to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, gender and marital status.

“People shouldn’t have to hide who they are to keep their job,” Ms Symes said.”

While the story focuses on Christian schools, the legislation is again broad and will swallow a great number of organisation (even some churches),

“The Victorian bill would also mean no faith-based organisations could discriminate when delivering government-funded services such as counselling or homelessness support, or hiring out community facilities”.

The proposal is deeply flawed and should trouble religious and non religious Victorians alike.

First of all, the conversation is wrongly framed. Not only is the Attorney General twisting the narrative, but even The Age assumes the story line that is being fed to us by today’s cultural preachers. 

The canvas paints Christians as mean and intolerant and makes us think that they’re firing gays and lesbians in their schools every second Tuesday. Instead of the crude and misleading ‘religious people hate gays’ rhetoric, this is about faith based organisations appointing staff who affirm their values. 

Faith-based schools largely exist because 100,000s of Australian families have lost trust in State schools to deliver an education that isn’t also accompanied by certain ideologies.  Christian and other faith based schools are growing because families want their children to be educated in line with their faith. Not only have families been driven away from State schools, now the Government is pursuing them in their faith-based schools.

Rather than saying, here are mean and intolerant Christians discriminating against others, the real picture is of religious organisations wanting to employ persons who affirm their stated values. It’s called freedom of association. 

Should a cricket club be forced to appoint a coach who wants to change the game to lacrosse? Should the ALP be forced to welcome One Nation members into the fold and change their platform to accomodate One Nation? If a hospital employs a doctor who later changes their views, coming out as an anti-vax campaigner who disagrees with COVID vaccines, should the hospital be forced to put them in charge of immunology? 

Not only does the framing of this conversation sounds like a badly acted caricature on Comedy Central, the policy itself is flawed and troubling for it depends on imposing a secularist view of religion. 

“Ms Symes said the reforms would “narrow” the exceptions to anti-discrimination legislation so that any discrimination would need to be “reasonable” and an inherent requirement of the job. For example, a school might be permitted to prevent a gay or transgender person being a religious studies teacher but could not stop them being a maths teacher.”

Who is the Attorney General to dictate to religious organisations what constitutes religious work and what is not? Do we really want the State educating and defining the theological beliefs and requirements of faith-based organisations? Is a gardener or an office administrator not doing specifically Christian work because they are not teaching Scripture? The Government is creating a false dichotomy which does not exist in the 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.

The Government is also mistaken in assuming that because a role does not have a direct theological or spiritual teaching component, it is therefore irrelevant whether the employee agrees with the organisation’s ethos, beliefs, and vision. This is purely illogical. Why would any organisation or company employ someone who does not support the basic values and vision of that asociation?

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

Is the Attorney General the new Archbishop? Is the Government replacement ecclesiastical council?  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?

The Labor Government tried to pass similar legislation in 2016, the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill. It fell short by a single vote in the Legislative Council. The vote is likely to be reversed on this occasion.

Not only is this latest attack on religious freedom a step too far, Jaclyn Symes is already hinting at expanding the legislation. The Bill has not even been tabled in Parliament and the Attorney General is fishing for justification to broaden the intrusion into religious organisations, 

“We could be convinced to extend it, we just haven’t consulted on that particular element of reform. I certainly wouldn’t have a closed mind to revisiting that down the track”.

The previous Attorney General, Jill Hennessy, made a similar comment in 2020 in relation to the Conversion Practices Bill. She indicated that the Government is open to extending prohibited ‘practices’ in the future and include church based sermons.

This ensures that conduct generally directed— such as sermons expressing a general statement of belief—is not captured. However, such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”

These Government moves sadden me, not only because the proposal is so unnecessary and a significant threat to religious freedom, but also because like many Christian leaders, I have urged people to do the right thing throughout this pandemic and to be patient with Government restrictions. We regularly pray for our Premier and the Government, and so this latest legislative move is a vicious and unnecessary attack on Victorians. 

 Religious organisations are already free to employ people regardless of sexuality, if they so choose. The Victorian Government wants to take away choice. 

For those who can still remember back to 2017 and the assurances offered during the Marriage Plebiscite, they have proven to be as leaky as a bucket of water held by a politician in one hand and an electric drill in the other hand, and with a team of social activists turning on the power. 

Above all, what concerns me is how the legislators framing of this debate skews the very nature of the Christian message. The Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t phobic or bigoted, and neither does it affirm and agree with every idea and desire that we express. The good news is God’s gracious and loving message of redemption. The Christian worldview presents an attractive alternative. Of course, not every Victorian will be convinced (and I’m the first to admit that sometimes Christians don’t help convince neighbours by some of the things we say and do), but this Government is bent on removing this choice and imbedding a version of sexual secularisation into Christian schools and organisations. This kind of intrusion will not strengthen our society and enable the vibrant pluralism and tolerance that once marked Victoria. 

By the end of the year, hundreds of schools and organisations will need to decide who they’ll follow. Will they sacrifice the good and God given vision for marriage and human sexuality or will they sacrifice Government funding*? A healthy and pluralistic society should never force this junction. At a time when we are still trying to survive the most difficult season in living memory, this Government is threatening religious organisations. One may hope that commonsense will prevail and that this legislation will fall down, but I suspect it’s time for organisations to consider what their true values are and where their ultimate allegiance lies.


Teachers have shared with me that it’s not just funding at stake but also registration and the ability to continue as a school

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?