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ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAW IN NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA

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Sponsored link.

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The New South Wales' 1977 Anti-Discrimination Act, passed in 1977, will be amended. Some of the proposed changes have alarmed Christian groups.

A two-volume report from the NSW Law Reform Commission recommended 161 changes in the first comprehensive review of the act, including a requirement that prospective employees may not be discriminated against on the basis of religious belief.

Three of the Law Reform Commission's changes appear of particular concern to religious institutions:

bulletOne change would limiting the right of religious institutions to discriminate in employment, unless a specific religious opinion is intrinsic to the job. For example, a Baptist church looking for a pastor could reject a rabbi who applied for the job. But an Atheist applying for the job of bookkeeper, caretaker, or telephone switchboard operator could not be rejected on religious grounds.
bulletA second change would prohibit the free exposition of certain biblical passages which are racist, sexist or homophobic. Examples are: verses in Leviticus condemning certain homosexual behaviors, or verses in the Gospel of John exhibiting hatred of Jews. Certain discussions of these passages would be considered hate speech.
bulletThe third would deal with vilification laws. The current law allows slander during "religious discussion and instruction." This exception would be removed.

Various church workers have spoken out against these proposals. They want to retain their present employment practices that guarantee a religiously- homogeneous work force. They also want the freedom to speak out publicly against homosexual behavior.

Mark Payne, secretary of the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church, said: "It appears that those who oppose us are saying that we should not be able to live and think and act in a way that we believe to be true. It appears those views are shared in sections of the upper echelons of our Parliament." The Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church debated the proposals at the annual Synod last week. In an earlier submission to the attorney general, the Standing Committee of the diocese urged the NSW government not to proceed with the amendments, contending that they would elevate the rights of individuals over the rights of groups, would promote freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion, and would attack fundamental human rights of people of all faiths.

The New South Wales government is considering its response, expected later this month.

Australian churches have become increasingly outspoken on issues of public morality, particularly about laws condoning homosexual relationships.

Separate draft guidelines on religious employment were released by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in August following complaints about the use of religious values in hiring church-related staff. The commission has requested public comment by 2000-OCT-30.

John Basten, commissioner in charge of the Law Reform Commission, said the panel’s report is a benchmark in anti-discrimination law. "While the Anti-Discrimination Act has been working well, the commission’s review provided an opportunity to rewrite the act to overcome some of its weaknesses to ensure that it remains an important tool in protecting individual rights," Basten said.

The NSW Council of Churches, which represents seven denominations, argued that the proposed amendments threaten the nature and practice of Christian churches, including religious services and use of church land. "It is a matter of grave concern that Christians may be forced by government to adhere to certain values they don’t believe in," said council President Ray Hoekzema. "The recommendations, if enacted, may force the churches to bow to the will of the state, rather than the will of God. If legislation says we must not discriminate on the basis of a candidate’s like-mindedness in spiritual things, it becomes a case of the state undermining the church’s mission."

The General Assembly of the NSW Presbyterian Church recently passed a resolution advising the state government that as a matter of conscience churches must be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of religion. Churches also must be able to require people they employ to adhere to basic tenants of the Christian faith and to deny access to premises to groups that contradict basic Christian beliefs.

Australian human rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti said there have been many religious discrimination claims against church-based organizations that provide community services on behalf of the Commonwealth. "Some of them have been the subject of complaints to the commission alleging discrimination in the form of job criteria that require compliance with particular religious values," Sidoti said. "The complaints highlighted a need for greater clarity concerning the requirements in this area."

Several Christian charitable organizations have told the human rights commission that the guidelines should be redrafted to ensure their concerns are addressed. Those groups include the Wesley Mission, Anglicare, Salvation Army, and Baptist Community Services, all of which provide community services on behalf of the Commonwealth on a contract basis and employ large numbers of staff.

The Reverend Howard Dillon, Anglicare executive director, said the draft guidelines ignore the right of churches to manifest their beliefs. "The approach of the draft guidelines represents a profoundly serious attack on the human rights of Australians … to express our beliefs corporately," he said.

Hoekzema said churches want assurances that they will be able to make choices in keeping with their understanding of biblical teaching. That means choosing employees who are willing to work as fellow followers of the faith. "Churches must have the freedom to uphold the integrity of their beliefs and explain the spiritual implications of their traditions," he said. "The government has no place changing our beliefs to suit themselves."

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[Webmaster's note: It is worth noting that the proposed law would not affect people's beliefs, only their actions. 

What we see here is a classical conflict between the rights of individuals and groups:

bulletShould:
bulletan individual have the right to be considered for employment on the basis of their ability to do the job, or 
bulletmay a religious organization be able to discriminate against a potential employee on the basis of their personal beliefs, even though a person with any religious affiliation (or none) could do the job equally well.
bulletShould:
bulletan individual be protected from hate speech, vilification and slander on the basis of their gender, race, and sexual orientation, or
bulletmay a religious leader interpret biblical passages in such a way as to direct such denigrative speech against individuals in these and other groups.

In a democracy, these are questions for which there are no easy answers.]

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References

  1. "Australian churches claim new laws limit religious freedom," Newsroom, 2000-OCT-25 at: http://www.newsroom.org/Article_show.asp?ArticleID=972548449 

Originally written: 2000-OCT-26
Latest update: 2000-OCT-26
Author: B.A. Robinson, and Newsroom staff (indented text)

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