Something good can come out of COVID driven Zoom meetings.

In 2020 our Monday Forum began as a group of friends who gathered online monthly to interact with guest speakers of cultural and political importance. These have included Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and Richard Alston, a former Federal minister and Liberal Party president. By early 2021, the Forum had distilled three principles essential for laws to be regarded as ethical and good: truth, human dignity, and the common good. Subsequent meetings used these tests to “interrogate proposed or actual legislation”.

Most recently, the March meeting of the Forum evaluated the Victorian Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 that passed quietly into law in December last year.

This legislation purports to strike the right balance between religious freedoms and the right to be free from discrimination. Victorian exemptions under the law were changed so that “when employing staff religious bodies and schools can only discriminate where conformity with religious beliefs is an inherent requirement of the job”, and that discrimination may only be “on the basis of a person’s religious belief (not on other personal characteristics)”.

In reality this means that a religious school may no longer prioritise the employment of teaching staff who support the religious ethos of the school, and that religious beliefs are assumed under the law to be unrelated to one’s everyday actions. The law only recognises the right of specific teachers in religious schools to teach religious knowledge, but not the right of the school as a whole to build a culture informed by faith.

Faith and life are decoupled under this law. It is a direct attack on religion and on the rights of parents.

Furthermore, in the past, staff who fail to support the culture of an organisation may find their employment terminated. Employment law already protects the right of employers to require supportive conduct from employees. This has been true for religious and secular organisations. Now this foundational right of association is under grave threat, but only in the context of religious institutions.

Here are our conclusions.

Does this legislation promote truth?

  • This legislation is one component in a broader pattern of ideological laws enacted by this government dismissive of accepted Christian values and pandering to radical minority groups.

  • It is a mistake to suggest that discrimination per se is wrong and a false principle. To discriminate can be a good thing yet the cynically named Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission states on its website: “Under the Equal Opportunity Act, employers have a positive duty to eliminate discrimination….” Wrongful discrimination rather is that which is unjust; we reject the presumption that injustice is a necessary effect of discrimination. We do this for many reasons, including the fact that we value as fundamental the possibility for individuals and groups to make choices between alternatives. Viewed entirely negatively this may be described as enabling discrimination, but seen positively it can well be described as recognising agency.

  • The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 sets a dangerous precedent. The law is founded on the false premise that laws may regulate how citizens think. It requires employers to no longer discriminate against dissenting religious views as a basis for employment.

  • The justification for this legislation appears to be largely fabricated and the focus hypocritical. The Victorian Attorney General has confirmed that “that not a single problem of discrimination could be identified in Catholic schools.” The hypocrisy of this law, and the partiality of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is evident. There are many examples of imposition upon, and even persecution of, students’ and teachers’ religious beliefs through state-funded and sponsored programmes like Safe Schools, without redress from the government.

  • This legislation denies religious institutions the right to build up their own culture by employing people who share their religious ethos. The hypocrisy of this legislative programme is apparent in that religious institutions are being compromised in their efforts to build broad staff support for their own ethos, a condition that these politicians themselves would insist upon in their own electoral offices.

Does this legislation promote human dignity?

  • A genuine respect for human dignity requires that members of a society are consulted in decisions which affect them. This Bill was passed into law with little consultation and with all substantive amendments overturned through backroom deals. It was passed with complete disregard for the reasoned input of major religious stakeholders. A test of whether legislators value truth must be whether they have paid particular attention to views that are widely held, cherished dearly, or deeply considered. They should seek a wide range of perspectives, giving greater weight to those that have stood the test of time, in the realisation that one’s own perspective can only provide, to a greater or lesser extent, fragments of total and objective reality. In the haste to bring this bill into law, no such effort to engage with alternative views was evident.

  • One of the key principles of social ethics is the principle of subsidiarity. Every group has a right to conduct its own peaceable affairs as it sees fit without undue government interference. This legislation, however, frustrates the right of schools and religious groups to create a culture that supports their own beliefs and traditions. This law threatens freedom of religious association by undermining the very culture of those associations. “Could there be any greater intrusion on religious rights than a state bureaucrat defining the terms of your religion for you?” asks James Macpherson in The Spectator.

  • Parents, unless they are utterly incompetent, have the right to educate their own children according to their best lights. This is a fundamental human right. It is monumental governmental overreach to impose restrictions in this sphere. Whether parents choose a religious environment for their children or choose a more secular environment for their child’s education, the government has no right to interfere, least of all in a partisan manner.

  • A diverse multicultural society thrives on diverse views. Diversity can only exist in a society tolerant of differing views. We must not be fearful of opinions and ideas because they are different; rather we should be wary of opinions and ideas that do not stand up to reasonable scrutiny.

Does this legislation promote the common good?

  • The common good is understood as a non-exclusive benefit achieved through cooperation. Australian philosopher John Young writes in The Natural Economy of the “non-appropriative, non-restrictive” feature of all common good. “No matter how much one member gains in appreciation of Shakespeare this does not limit the appreciation the other members can have”. Sharing knowledge or concern is not like sharing money. Common good stands in contrast to material goods and other commodities, “where one person’s possession excludes or restricts that of others”. The test of a true common good is that all benefit. It is for this reason that ethical principles further the common good for all; partisan interests can never do this.

  • The common good does not penalise one party at the expense of another. It is inconsistent with the common good that potential employees have a choice to select an institution opposed to their own beliefs, yet the choice to employ selectively is being removed from religious employers. Such an imbalance discredits the very notion of just laws and is revealed as an attack upon institutions wishing to preserve their religious identity.

  • The ideology underpinning this law is essentially Marxist and materialist in origin: management and religion are framed as oppressors, and workers as the oppressed. In this dreary and thoroughly discredited vision of the human interaction, one person’s benefit necessarily restricts that of another. By its very nature this approach is incompatible with a common good approach to government.

It is difficult not to view as deeply anti-Christian and anti-family this Victorian legislation. It has been bulldozed into law, under cover of COVID, without effective consultation, without readiness to consider mainstream dissent, and without meaningful amendments.

As such it is in good company with the other ideological achievements of the Andrews’ government.

We conclude that the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 is a weapon of intolerant ideologues. It should never have been passed and it establishes concerning precedents. The totalitarian arrogance that fast tracked this law has no place in a pluralist and tolerant society.

Dr Andy Mullins is convenor of the Monday Forum. This analysis was composed in recent meetings. The Forum, meeting monthly, utilises the lenses of truth, respect for human dignity, and pursuit of the common good to assess legislation as just and ethical. Readers wishing to join the monthly online Monday Forum should email themondayforum@gmail.com.

Dr Andy Mullins now works with parents and university students in Melbourne and teaches the Formation of Character course at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. He is the author of Parenting for Character...