Vic election: three views on religious freedom

This Saturday, Christians in Victoria will cast their vote alongside thousands of others to decide who will govern their state. At the moment, it’s not looking good for the incumbent Liberal Premier Dennis Napthine, with the ALP ahead in the polls.

Most Victorians are debating issues like the construction of a new tollway and the economy. But among Christians, it’s a different story. Most of the election discussion is centred on one issue: religious freedom.

It’s all about the fine print of equal opportunities legislation.

In 2010, the Equal Opportunity Act was brought into law in VIC by the Brumby Labor government. Viewed by some as an attack on religious freedom, the Liberal Baillieu government passed an amendment seeking to ensure religious organisations and bodies could employ people of their own faith. Labor are now planning to reverse the legislation, making it only possible to employ someone of the same faith where it is an “inherent requirement” for their job. Christian schools are particularly worried about the change.

They’re concerned the “occupational requirement” test will mean they can only employ Christians to teach explicitly religious subjects, for example a religious education teacher or chaplain.

The Australian Christian Lobby is amongst a coalition of leaders from Baptist, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican churches who in the last week made a statement calling on both sides to protect religious freedom.

In the lead up to the election the Liberals have been working hard to court the Christian vote, hosting meetings at Parliament House for Christian leaders and publicly stating their support for SRI (Christian religious instruction in schools). The ALP on the other hand have been seen by many as clamping down on religious freedom, and are even being branded as anti-religion by some.

But is religious freedom the only issue Christians should be voting for come the election? Eternity spoke to a handful of Christian leaders and thinkers to get a range of views.

Angus McLeay, Isaiah One – for Labor’s laws
In the minority is Angus McLeay, who thinks there could be some good to come from the “inherent requirement” test. “The inherent requirements test can be a means to strengthen trust between religious bodies and the wider community. How so? Public trust in institutions is at historic lows and the Church is no exception. The Church suffers from perceptions of being judgmental, lacking transparency and open to discrimination. Engaged with responsibly, the ‘inherent requirements test’ can alleviate such perceptions. The test asks religious bodies to explain why particular positions have a ‘religious’ component. Why wouldn’t religious bodies want to explain more about what faith looks like in, say, a religious school? Being transparent about why positions have a religious element actually bolsters a defence against accusations of discrimination. The ‘blanket’ and ‘automatic’ exemptions, currently provided for, act like a ‘shroud of secrecy’ by which justified and unjustified actions are equally protected. Rather than conveying the Church’s openness and integrity this signals the wrong message.”

Dan Flynn, Australian Christian Lobby – for the Liberals’ laws
Heading up a campaign against Labor’s policy is the ACL, who have set up a website where voters can enter their details and shoot off an email to every Labor candidate in Victoria expressing concern for the changes. Dan Flynn is particularly concerned by the response letters coming back from the ALP to voters, which seeks to reassure them there may well still be room for schools to argue their case for the requirement for all teachers to be of a particular faith. But Dan believes this is misleading. “The response [from Labor] says that only staff at the margins of the organisation’s mission, like the school gardener, can’t be subject to a religious belief test. But the standard response is not fair dinkum.

“Many roles – teachers, managers and staff – will be subject to the inherent requirements test. How the test works will be determined not by religious schools and organisations but by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and by VCAT and the courts on the basis of legal arguments.”

He believes Labor is underplaying the issue in order to win over swinging voters in key marginal seats in Melbourne’s east. “But if it’s such a small issue, then why reinstate it at all?…”

Gordon Preece, Director of Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity and Society – For the Liberals’ laws but also concerned by one-eyed voters
In between the two above views stands Gordon Preece. “I do not believe in single issue voting, but instead voting on a balance of biblical perspectives on key religious, personal, social and environmental issues…” he says. But Preece does believe the issue of religious freedom is an important one.

“Labor leader Daniel Andrews’ policies show greater Christian compassion on social issues like the unemployed, educationally underprivileged, and preventing family violence. He explained [at a Parliament House briefing with Christian leaders] that he and his children are products of the Catholic church and its school system, but he does not believe that all staff need to be of similar faith or values. This unfortunately, in my view,  moves us closer to a narrower freedom of worship, rather than freedom of religion i.e. in its original meaning a binding together of all life.

“When I taught at Ridley College it was clear to me that the receptionist embodied the relational, welcoming Christian values of the college as crucially as anyone. Likewise, Northern Territory Christian schools once had a session for gardeners on how to reflect the Garden of Eden in their work. Andrews misses the holistic dimension of the Christian faith in his comments and restrictive ‘inherent requirements’ policy… It is also important to ask ‘who will determine who decides what is an ‘inherent requirement’?’- ‘who will guard the guardians?’ In agreement with Angus, it is vital that Christian institutions be increasingly transparent and accountable, but not in onerous or adversarially legalistic ways, judged by people with a minimalistic, ritualistic view of religion.

“The danger of restricting freedom of religion to mere ritual worship or bare belief, is that the embodied, enculturated nature of Christianity, and other religions is lost. This then has the potential to become a serious diminishment of the deep multiculturalism and multi-faith nature of our society. It also diminishes the rights of parents to pass on their faith through their taxes paying for sympathetic teachers and staff and welfare personnel to be their agents.

“In the end, a balancing of individual rights and the rights of religious and other groups to exercise their freedom of religion fully, in all of life, as long as they do not harm others, in classically liberal terms, is critical. The current Labor position restricts the holistic nature of religion to inherent requirements, but some Christians are also in danger of reducing the faith, and politics, to a single, albeit highly important issue.”

The Australian Christian Lobby has organised a “meet the candidates” forum in Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews’ electorate of Mulgrave this Thursday. The event is on 27 November, at 7:30PM at Waverley Baptist Church. All are invited to attend to put their questions to the potential Premier.

[NOTE from Tuesday 25 November: Daniel Andrews is unable to attend the ACL’s “meet the candidates” forum. Gavin Jennings MLC will represent the Opposition Leader on the night].