Leaders of faith communities in Victoria have written an open letter to the Attorney General regarding the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. The letter, printed in today’s edition of The Age, expresses their grave concerns about the proposed amendments which it calls a ‘gross overreach’ by a Government ‘seeking to dictate how faith communities should run their organisations.’

‘Our faith communities work tirelessly across all sectors of society to support fellow Victorians from diverse backgrounds, believing we have much to offer the community in the services we provide,’ the letter states.

‘Our religious beliefs and values underpin every aspect of the work we do, especially in our care for the most vulnerable, our commitment to educating young people and our efforts to contribute to a more just and cohesive society.

‘Rather than allow religious bodies their natural right to operate in accordance with their beliefs, the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 seeks to go well beyond what might be considered reasonable or healthy in a pluralist society.’

The Bill is currently being debated in Parliament and if passed, would mean that religious bodies and educational institutes will no longer be able to employ staff who hold the same religious beliefs and values unless they can prove that it is an “inherent requirement” of the job. It would grant power to a government appointed commissioner or a court to ultimately determine whether particular staffing roles carried an “inherent” religious requirement or not.

‘For people of faith, religious beliefs shape all aspects of life. Parents that send their children to religious schools expect that the school’s environment faithfully represents the religious ethos in every respect including the conduct of all teachers and staff. With this Bill, the ability for schools to meet this legitimate expectation will be severely compromised because, in effect, the Bill erroneously disconnects religious belief from conduct that is consistent with this belief.’

Faith leaders say the Bill unfairly targets religious bodies and educational institutes and would seriously impact religious organisations in ways that are not currently imposed upon other sectors of society, including Government bodies and political parties.

‘If it is understood that it is advantageous for political parties and ministerial offices to hire staff who adhere to their beliefs and values, why is not the same standard being applied to religious organisations as well?

‘This is an unnecessary and unreasonable overreach of Government power and not appropriate in a tolerant and democratic society, where the rights of all people – including people of faith – should be respected.’

Faith leaders are urging the Attorney General and the Government to pause before pushing through ‘such a drastic change that upsets the current balance which has proven to be fair and workable’, and reiterated their calls for meaningful consultation with faith groups.

The letter has been signed by the Catholic Bishops of Victoria, as well as leaders from the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne; the Hindu Council of Australia; the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne; the Eparchy of Saints Peter and Paul of Melbourne for Ukrainian Catholics in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania; the Cowen Institute for Judaism and Civilization; the International Society for Krishna Consciousness; the Victorian Sikh Gurduaras Council; the Diocese of Australia & New Zealand of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia; the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of St Thomas the Apostle, Melbourne; the Board of Imams Victoria; the Islamic Council of Victoria; Churches of Christ Vic/Tas; the Interfaith Council of Victoria, and; the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.