Government attacks religious employment freedoms and parents’ rights

Despite the strong protests of many Christian churches and other faith leaders, the Victorian ALP government has legislated against parental rights, the beliefs of traditional religious communities and the employment freedoms of religious bodies.

When Andrew Thorburn was forced to resign as CEO of Essendon because of his church’s beliefs, Premier Daniel Andrews described the traditional Christian belief; “that homosexual sexual activity is contrary to God’s will,” as “absolutely appalling … that kind of intolerance and hatred is just wrong”. To say some activity is contrary to God’s will is not an expression of hatred for a person who engages in that activity. Christians believe that all humans engage in activities that are contrary to God’s will and need to seek forgiveness. The core message of Christianity is that God is love and Jesus through his sacrificial act of love offers reconciliation with God to everyone who will repent and believe.

  1. Parents and religious communities acting on traditional beliefs on sexuality and gender now unlawful

The Andrews government has legislated to make it illegal for parents to require their children, and religious communities to require their members, to live in accordance with Biblical teachingon sexuality and gender.

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021 makes it illegal for anyone to engage in any conduct (including a conversation) which induces any person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. This means it is illegal for anyone (including parents) to counsel or pray with children, family members, students or other church members to induce them to change or resist desires to engage in same sex sexual activity or to identify as a different gender than their biological sex. It is illegal even if that the other person requested and consented to the counselling or prayer.

People engaging in such conduct can be investigated by the Victorian Human Rights Commission and subjected to enforceable undertakings or compliance notices, whether or not any harm results from the conduct.

In addition, if the child or family member or person says (even years later) that they suffered psychological harm from the counselling or prayer, the parents or other people who engage in the conduct can be prosecuted for a crime with penalties up to 10 years imprisonment and a $200,000 fine.

That is correct – praying for and counselling people to change or not express their sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal and triggers civil sanctions, even if the person requests it and benefits from it. And if the person does suffers psychological harm, the prayer or counselling can be prosecuted as a crime.

This law endorses assisting children and adults to transition their bodies to match their perceived gender identity and makes it illegal to “suppress” their gender identity by discouraging them from transitioning their bodies. Gender dysphoria is a painful and complex reality for some people. But the best way to help people suffering with dysphoria should be determined by the person and their family, and medical professionals, not by the government creating ideologically-driven laws which endorse only one approach and punish others.

The government also introduced a new example of family violence – one family member repeatedly “denigrating” another family member’s sexual orientation e.g. by telling them it is wrong to be same-sex attracted and that they must change. The second family member can get an intervention order against the first member, or if the second member is a child, the government has the power to take the child into child protection.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of their gender identity. It is unlawful to try to stop transwomen (biological men who identify as women) using women-only spaces such as women’s change rooms, toilets, swimming pool sessions or providing female only childcare – the provider of the facility can be liable for unlawful discrimination (subject to limited exceptions).

  • Employment freedoms of Religious bodies and schools severely wound back

Christian institutions were formerly able to hire staff and promote or dismiss them on the basis of whether they conformed to the Christian faith in their beliefs and conduct.

From June 2022, in changes that go way beyond LGBTI issues, a church, religious school or college or other religious body has to prove that it was an inherent requirement of the position that the person’s religious beliefs (not their conduct) conformed to the employer’s stated religious beliefs, that the person’s religious beliefs did not in fact conform and that it was reasonable and proportionate for the employer to take action against the employee. Political parties don’t have to follow those rules for their employees whose beliefs contradict party policy.

Can a church or Christian school or body prove that it is in practice an inherent requirement of the position of a receptionist, music director, business manager, IT staff, maths or science or history teacher to share the Christian beliefs of the body? Even if it can prove this, if a church or Christian school employs a person and later discovers that the person has a (legal) second occupation contrary to the Christian beliefs of the church or school (e.g. aggressive debt collection, selling legal pornography or sex work (now decriminalised in Victoria)) or is engaging in lawful sexual activity outside marriage (e.g. unmarried sex or adultery – regardless of whether it is straight or gay), the employer can’t take action against the person because of that conduct. Instead, the employer would have to show that the person no longer believed the relevant Christian beliefs of the organisation, which may be very difficult.

These Victorian restrictions on freedom for religious bodies are now proposed to be introduced in Queensland, WA, ACT and NT.

There is more to come. Currently conveying or teaching a religion or proselytizing are exempt from being illegal religious vilification in Victoria. The Andrews government has agreed in principle to narrow that exemption, meaning preaching and evangelism will become subject to a new avenue of legal attack.

Parents and religious communities need to be aware of these laws and proposed laws and, if these issues concern them, think carefully about how they vote.

– Mark Sneddon, Executive Director, Institute for Civil Society

PO Box 2107 Camberwell West, VIC Australia 3124