Many of you would appreciate the ministry of Focus on the Family. James Dobson’s organisation has helped millions of families with its practical, faith-friendly resources. In the same way, Teen Challenge is another Christian organisation which has been helpful to so many drug and alcohol victims.
Another group which has done so much good for so many is Prison Fellowship. Countless prisoners have been assisted, and many have come to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Or think even of this website, which many have said has been a helpful source of information and encouragement.
What do these four organisations have in common? All are what are known as parachurch organisations. As the term implies, these are Christian ministries that come alongside of the church, helping it in performing tasks it may not be able to do itself. They provide specialised ministries to help assist the church in carrying out its work.
And another thing they all have in common is that they might all be forced out of business, if restrictive options proposed in a discussion paper go through. At the moment there is a review underway of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995. The options paper looks at removing the various exemptions to religious organisations. This should be of real concern to every single Christian, as well as to everyone concerned about religious freedom and freedom of speech.
The government paper is 173 pages long, and not the sort of thing most Victorians would have the time or inclination to read. But we must be aware of what it is saying, and make appropriate responses. Mark Durie has done us all a terrific favour by providing a very good summary and overview of the document, and alerting Christians to the many dangers the proposed changes would entail.
In addition to the main sections dealing with religious exemptions (Sections 75-77), there are other relevant sections, notably Sections 38 and 56. Durie carefully examines each section, and demonstrates how the removal of exemptions would seriously impact on churches, Christian schools and parachurch organisations.
Durie says this: “Clearly religious freedom is not unlimited. There is such a thing as bad religion. Some religious practices, such as child sacrifice and female genital mutilation, are illegal in Victoria and should remain so. It is also not the case that people of faith are seeking unlimited exemptions from the laws of the state. The challenge is where to draw the line, and there are just so many problems with implementing the framework proposed in the Options Paper for drawing this line. The distinction between ‘core’ and other functions to limit exemption 75(2) is, as we have noted, particularly ill conceived.”
He says this about how parachurch groups will be impacted: “The use of the ‘core/peripheral’ test could penalise hundreds of parachurch organisations, with many thousands of supporters. Such groups have been constituted for a religious purpose, yet employ no clergy and conduct no officially recognized worship. A great deal of the diversity and vitality of the Christian community derives, not from official clerically led denominational activities, but from independent lay organisations. These include many mission bodies, as well as groups dedicated to providing a diverse range of services, both to their members, and to the broader community. The Options Paper seemingly has little or no awareness of the extent of these groups in the Australian community, and the impossibility of protecting their members without a broad interpretation of 75(2).”
Durie rightly notes that the discussion paper makes a faulty distinction between core and peripheral religious activities: “By proposing to protect ‘core’ religion the Options Paper begins to walk down a path, well?trodden by oppressive regimes, of regulating religion through channelling its observance into officially recognized denominational observance, at the expense of lay?led and independent non?conformist religious activity. This privileges institutional manifestations of religion over the exercise of independent personal conscience. Such a model for regulating religious freedom has failed again and again, being used as an effective instrument of persecution. By discouraging diversity it also encourages narrow, restrictive religious practices.”
Also, it may be impossible to distinguish religious activities from non-religious activities: “Churches employ many staff who are not clergy, but whose function is regarded as integral to the religious vocation and life of the Christian community. In a congregational context, roles such as receptionist, playgroup coordinator or caretaker are not simply ‘secular’ functions devoid of spiritual content. They are understood as involving the exercise of what are regarded as charismata ‘spiritual gifts’ (such as hospitality and helps: see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4), and are to be conducted as an act of service to God, and as a witness of faith to the community. It would prove impossible to impose secular morality – include secular sexual ethics – upon churches’ processes for choosing employees or volunteers in such contexts by limiting exemptions to clergy or some narrow secularist conception of ‘core’ functions.”
And different religions require the ability to maintain their differences: “Some religions are inherently opposed to each other. It would be unworkable to compel a Satanist group to employ a Christian cleaner or cook, or vice versa, solely on the grounds that cleaning is alleged not to be a ‘core’ function. Such compulsion would moreover cause deep hurt and offense. For the state to fine or imprison clergy, or lay church leaders, over equal opportunity violations of this kind would cause deep offense, and indeed widespread scandal in the community, as conflicting religions take their theological battles and antipathies into courts and tribunals.”
And as Durie notes, if these recommendations go through, judges may well be forced to rule on doctrinal issues: “There are serious difficulties with demanding that religious groups justify to secular judges what constitutes ‘reasonable’ religious practices, and what does or does not accord with religious doctrines. To do so would require Tribunals and Courts to make wide?reaching and complex determinations on which religious beliefs and practices are reasonable or authorized by the state.”
He concludes, “In summary, the Options Paper’s conceptual framework for determining how to limit religious rights is deeply flawed. Its approach is antithetical to Christian understandings of faith and public life. The Options Paper seems to veer towards the prohibition of the public manifestation of religion, by setting up an unworkable and ultimately discriminatory dichotomy between ‘core’ and other functions, and seemingly conflating it with an equally unworkable ‘private’ vs. ‘public’ dichotomy.
“The Options Paper is flawed in its discussion of the religious exemptions. It applies an innovative and untested model for regulating religious freedom which is essentially secularist and, if accepted, will penalize public manifestations of religion. The present system of exemptions should be left in place. They have served us well. Meddling with the religious rights of Victorians by applying an ill?considered and ill?informed analysis of religious liberty can only cause disharmony and great distress in the Victorian community.”
Exactly so. Whether well-intentioned or not, this paper, if its restrictive proposals are fully implemented, will result in a stranglehold on Christian activity of all sorts. It will be the beginning of the end for Christianity in Victoria. Every single person reading these words needs to put in a submission, no matter how brief, arguing that these exemptions remain.
The options paper is here: www.parliament.vic.gov.au/SARC/EOA_exempt_except/Options%20paper/options_paper_complete.pdf
Submissions can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The deadline for submissions is Friday 10 July 2009.
And everyone should carefully read Mark Durie’s excellent 13-page briefing paper: www.smac.org.au/blogs/vicar/Briefing%20Notes%20on%20the%20Options%20Paper%20-%20Durie.pdf