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Religious freedom under threat

by Charles Francis, AM, QC, RFD

News Weekly, July 25, 2009

From its beginning, Australia was a secular country in that it had no established church. There was freedom of religion for a rich variety of faiths. The Australian Commonwealth had a rich Judaeo-Christian heritage, and churches provided hospitals, schools and other quasi-religious institutions from which the community derived considerable benefits. There were many great Christians who made very significant contributions to our country, and our Christian heritage played a very important part in the development of the great Australian democracy.

In 1976, the Hamer Liberal Government prepared Victoria's first Equal Opportunity Bill. I was one of the members of the Liberal Party committee responsible for advising on the bill. At an early stage, I concluded that the bill was contrary to the best interests of Victorians. In October 1976, I spoke in the Liberal Party room, pointing out some of the many defects in the bill, and also wrote a number of memoranda on the subject.

The bill was in direct conflict with the philosophies of the Menzies Liberal Party. The right of entrepreneurs to determine whom they would employ was an important element in private enterprise, and in making their choices they should not be subjected to dictation by a government board. After all, the government was not prepared to help private employers who got into difficulties because of an employee foisted on them owing to "equal opportunity" legislation.

I considered, in so far as there might be "discrimination" issues in Victoria, that the solution lay in appropriate education of the public, not in legislation. The bill gave to the state's Equal Opportunity Board, as it was then, a number of powers which far exceeded those of the Victorian police force when investigating the most serious crimes. The board's investigative powers seemed more appropriate for a totalitarian government.

From its inception, Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act tended to diminish our freedoms and our Christian heritage. To take one example, before its introduction, many employers gave financial assistance to married employees - the employer might provide a loan to assist in the purchase of a home.

However, once the act became law, Section 18 of the act required the employer to provide exactly the same benefits for employees in de facto relationships. When homosexuality was legalised, the employer might be required to provide assistance to homosexual couples. The result was that this type of charitable assistance, from which young married employees and the community derived considerable benefit, largely disappeared.

On balance, equal opportunity legislation has probably done our community more harm than good. In 1983, the Victorian Cain Labor Government introduced a new act which worsened the situation, as has subsequent legislation.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (and its predecessor, the Equal Opportunity Board) has now been in operation for more than 30 years.

It should by this time have achieved all the objectives for which it was set up. The large number of women now in the paid workforce suggests there is no significant discrimination against women, and the commission should no longer be needed. Women now outnumber men at universities.

The Victorian parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee has now released an options paper on the exceptions and exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 1995, proposing the repeal of Section 77 of the act by which individuals would lose their religious freedom and freedom of conscience. There are also proposed amendments to Sections 75 and 76 of the act, whereby church hospitals and schools would lose the right to decide whom they will employ.

The apparent enthusiasm of the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission for the proposed amendments suggests the commission has no real understanding of how church hospitals and schools operate, nor does it have adequate understanding of the benefits of our Christian heritage.

To achieve its objectives, a Christian school does not simply provide a secular education and a few hours of religious instruction each week. The Christian qualities of its staff, their participation in the religious services and prayers of the school, and the example they set to the pupils by their own Christian lives - all these are a vital part of a Christian education.

The proposed amendments should all be strongly opposed as being anti-Christian and a serious interference with our religious freedom.

Parliament, far from seeking to amend the act, should instead conduct an independent inquiry into the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and its history, to determine whether the commission deserves to continue operating in the state and whether the Equal Opportunity Act should be repealed.

Charles Francis, AM, QC, RFD, is a barrister and former member of the Victorian state parliament.



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