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Australian Catholic leader warns of change to exemptions for religious


Albertus Aditya | CC BY-SA 4.0

John Burger - published on 11/07/21

Archbishop Comensoli of Melbourne says change threatens religious liberty.

The Australian state of Victoria might eliminate most religious exemptions to its anti-discimination law, and the archbishop of Melbourne is warning that such a move threatens the Church’s religious liberty.

The Equality Opportunity Act of 2010 prohibits discrimination and sexual harassment at work and schools and in the commercial arena. But proponents want to bolster protections for people who are discriminated against by making it harder for religious organizations to claim exemptions to the law.

“This law currently allows religious bodies and schools to discriminate against people based on sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status and gender identity,” the government claims on its website. “Religious bodies and schools can lawfully refuse entry to a prospective student, expel a student, refuse to employ someone, fire someone or otherwise treat someone differently based on these grounds.”

The government says religious organizations can claim exemptions if their actions conform to the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion.

“A religious school may be able to fire an administrative assistant who comes out as gay, or gets divorced, if the school thinks that it is necessary to avoid injuring the beliefs of other members of the religion,” the government says. “A religious organization may be able to refuse to provide counselling services to a member of the public who is transgender if the discrimination conforms with the beliefs of their religion.”

Thus, the government is seeking to amend the law so that exemptions can be granted only where conformity with religious beliefs is an inherent requirement of the job. And, “when running a school or providing services funded by the Victorian Government religious bodies will only be able to discriminate on the basis of a person’s religious belief (not on other personal characteristics).”

The government claims that the proposed changes will not affect an institution’s prerogatives in training or ordaining members of the clergy.

But Melbourne Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli says the proposed reform will “seriously diminish the rights of religious organizations to manage their activity according to their faith and conscience.”

“Across multiple sectors, Catholics run organizations with an open and inclusive commitment to all people in their care, regardless of their personal circumstances,” Archbishop Comensoli said in a statement. “Suddenly the Government is determined to tell them whether or not religious identity should be a factor in managing employment matters.

“I am particularly worried about Catholic schools which have been a beacon of trust and welcome for so many precisely because they are run on the basis of Catholic faith and values,” Archbishop Comensoli continued. “It should not be up to a court or a government bureaucrat to determine what constitutes faithful conduct in a religious context.”

“What this kind of riding rough-shod over religious projects shows is a strident secularism that I think is ultimately inconsistent with the free exercise provision in the Constitution, but sadly is on the rise in Australia today,” Professor of Law at Notre Dame University Australia Iain Benson told The Catholic Weekly. “If free exercise means anything, it means the ability to teach, manifest and practice your religious beliefs in private or in public. And I think if the churches don’t push back hard on this, then they will be run right over.”

Meanwhile, in New York, the Diocese of Brooklyn fired a teacher from a Catholic school in October because the man had entered into a same-sex “marriage” in August. The diocese evidently was able to get around New York State anti-discrimination laws by claiming that the man was a “minister” of the Church as well as a teacher.

The loophole “provides the legal basis by which the Catholic Church can refuse to employ women as priests,” the New York Times pointed out, “but in recent years it has increasingly been used to fire people in same-sex civil marriages from jobs that have not traditionally been seen as part of the clergy.”

Religious Freedom
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