This post is part of a series looking at Australia’s Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws analysing how well – or in some cases, how poorly – they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from discrimination and vilification (other posts in the series can be found here).
Each post examines that jurisdiction’s LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, focusing on three main areas:
- Protected attributes
- Religious exceptions, and
- Anti-vilification coverage.
Unfortunately, as we shall see below, Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010 has serious deficiencies in two of these three categories. It is time for the Parliament to act to ensure LGBTI Victorians enjoy adequate protections against homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination and vilification, including by religious institutions.
Protection against discrimination for LGBTI Victorians has developed across three distinct stages.
Victoria’s first anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and bisexual people were introduced in 1995. However, rather than protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or homosexuality and bisexuality, the Act instead covered ‘lawful sexual activity’.
This protected attribute was defined as “engaging in, not engaging in or refusing to engage in a lawful sexual activity”[i] and, with its focus on behaviour rather than identity, it is questionable how effective these protections were in practice.
Fortunately, as the name suggests, the Equal Opportunity (Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation) Act 2000 signalled a second stage of reform, by introducing ‘sexual orientation’ as a protected attribute, defined as “homosexuality (including lesbianism), bisexuality or heterosexuality.”[ii]
While the language used may not be the same that would be used today[iii], it is clear that lesbian, gay and bisexual Victorians are all covered from that point onwards.
The same amending legislation in 2000 also introduced anti-discrimination protections for transgender Victorians for the first time.
This is because it introduced ‘gender identity’ as a protected attribute, with the following definition:
“gender identity means-
(a) the identification on a bona fide basis by a person of one sex as a member of the other sex (whether or not the person is recognised as such)-
(i) by assuming characteristics of the other sex, whether by means of medical intervention, style of dressing or otherwise; or
(ii) by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the other sex; or
(b) the identification on a bona fide basis by a person of indeterminate sex as a member of a particular sex (whether or not the person is recognised as such)-
(i) by assuming characteristics of that sex, whether by means of medical intervention, style of dressing or otherwise; or
(ii) by living, or seeking to live, as a member of that sex.”[iv]
Paragraph (a) of this definition applied to transgender people, although, given its focus on ‘binary’ genders, it would appear it only covered those people whose sex was designated as male at birth, but subsequently identified as female (and vice versa). It did not appear to cover people with non-binary gender identities.
The definition in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 was therefore no longer best practice, and a new, more inclusive definition of gender identity was needed[v] to ensure all transgender people benefitted from anti-discrimination protection.
Intersex Victorians were even worse off under the 2000 reforms. Paragraph (b) of the definition of gender identity, above, offered their only protection under Victorian law, and was problematic because:
- It inappropriately conflated intersex status, which relates to physical sex characteristics, with gender identity, and
- It only appeared to protect people with intersex variations where they identified as either male or female.
In order to remedy this situation, a stand-alone protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ was needed in the Act, based on the call by intersex activists in the March 2017 Darlington Statement[vi].
Fortunately, all of the above limitations appear to have been addressed in the third stage of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections, which were introduced as part of recent legislation prohibiting anti-gay and anti-trans conversion practices (as amendments in the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021).
- Introducing a new definition of sexual orientation: ‘means a person’s emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, or intimate or sexual relations with, persons of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender.’ This clearly protects lesbian, gay and bisexual people, as well as pansexuals and other sexual orientations.
- Introducing a new definition of gender identity: ‘means a person’s gender-related identity, which may or may not correspond with their designated sex at birth, and includes the personal sense of the body (whether this involves medical intervention or not) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech, mannerisms, names and personal references.’ This means gender identity is no longer described in binary terms, thus protecting non-binary people against discrimination.
- Introducing a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’, with the following definition: ‘means a person’s physical features relating to sex, including- (a) genitalia and other sexual and reproductive parts of the person’s anatomy; and (b) the person’s chromosomes, genes, hormones, and secondary physical features that emerge as a result of puberty.’ This means people with intersex variations of sex characteristics will finally be protected when these changes to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 take effect (expected shortly).
Summary: It has taken longer than it should, but the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 will soon finally protect all groups within the LGBTI community against discrimination.
The religious exceptions contained in Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010, are, to put it bluntly, outrageous. They are so broad, and so generous, that they substantially, and substantively, undermine laws that are supposed to redress discrimination against LGBTI people (amongst other groups).
While the exceptions for religious bodies[vii] contained in subsection 82(1)[viii] appear largely innocuous, relating to the appointment or training of religious ministers and the selection of people to perform religious services, it is only downhill from there.
For example, subsection 82(2) states that:
“Nothing in Part 4 applies to anything done on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity by a religious body that-
(a) conforms with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion; or
(b) is reasonably necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion.”
Essentially, as long as a religious organisation can show that discriminating against LGBTI people is related to their religion, they have carte blanche to do so in areas where it would be otherwise unlawful.
And, lest there be any doubt that these provisions cover religious schools – allowing them to discriminate against LGBTI teachers and students – section 83 reinforces the ‘right’ to discriminate on these grounds:
“83 Religious schools
(1) This section applies to a person or body, including a religious body, that establishes, directs, controls, administers or is an educational institution that is, or is to be, conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles.
(2) Nothing in Part 4 applies to anything done on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity by a person or body to which this section applies in the course of establishing, directing, controlling or administering the educational institution that-
(a) conforms with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion; or
(b) is reasonably necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion.”
The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 even includes a somewhat unusual, ‘special right’ for individuals to discriminate against other individuals:
“84 Religious beliefs or principles
Nothing in Part 4 applies to discrimination by a person against another person on the basis of that person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity if the discrimination is reasonably necessary for the first person to comply with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of their religion.”[ix]
Tasmania is the only other jurisdiction to include a similar ‘individual’ right to discriminate, although it only allows discrimination on the basis of religion – and not on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of these exceptions is that the most recent changes in this area took the law backwards.
In 2010, the then Labor Government introduced amendments to both the general religious exception, and the specific religious schools exception, so that, in order to discriminate in employment the religious body or school would first need to show that:
“(a) conformity with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion is an inherent requirement of the particular position; and
(b) the person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity means that he or she does not meet that inherent requirement.”[x]
However, before this ‘inherent requirement’ test could even take effect, the newly-elected Liberal-National Government repealed these provisions in 2011, effectively restoring the previous broad and generous exceptions.
Not only are groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, Christian Schools Australia and the Catholic Education Office all (predictably and) vehemently opposed to limiting what is in practice an almost unfettered right to discriminate against LGBTI employees[xi], the history of recent adoption equality legislation also shows just how committed the Liberal and National parties are to protecting this so-called ‘right’.
For those who may be unaware, as part of the long overdue introduction of equal adoption rights for same-sex couples in Victoria[xii], the Andrews Labor Government proposed that religious agencies providing adoption services should not be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people. The amendment sought to add a new subsection (3) to section 82 of the Act:
“Despite subsection (2), Part 4 applies to anything done by a religious body that is an approved agency within the meaning of the Adoption Act 1984 in relation to its exercise of any power or performance of any function or duty under that Act for or with respect to adoption, whether or not the power, function or duty relates to a service for a child within the meaning of that Act or for any other purpose.”
Unfortunately, the Liberal and National parties combined with some cross-bench MPs to defeat this amendment, meaning that, while the right of same-sex couples to adopt has now finally been passed, adoption services operated by religious organisations will continue to have the ‘right’ to turn those same couples away.
Undeterred by this setback, in the second half of 2016 the Andrews Labor Government attempted to implement its election commitment by reintroducing the inherent requirements test for anti-LGBT discrimination in employment via the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016.
Yet again, however, the Liberal and National parties used their numbers in the Legislative Council to block this modest reform, meaning LGBT teachers at religious schools, and employees at other religious organisations, can still be discriminated against simply because of who they are, and even where this discrimination has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual role they are performing.
With the Andrews Labor Government re-elected on 24 November 2018, and a potentially more supportive Legislative Council, it is now up to Minister for Equality Martin Foley MP and his Government to push for broader reforms than simply re-instating the ‘inherent requirement’ test for employment to considering how best to prohibit discrimination against LGBTI people accessing services.
Ultimately, of course, there is a need to remove all religious exceptions outside those required for the training and appointment of religious ministers, and for the conduct of religious ceremonies.
Summary: The religious exceptions contained in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 are overly broad, too generous, and – frankly – outrageous. Current provisions give religious bodies and religious schools wide powers to discriminate both against LGBTI employees and against LGBTI people accessing their services.
The Labor Government is to be commended for attempting to reinstate the ‘inherent requirement’ test for discrimination in employment, and to remove exceptions for religious adoption agencies – but now, following their re-election, they must go further and, at the very least, remove exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff.
This section will be the shortest of the post – because, unlike NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT, there are no anti-vilification laws covering any parts of the LGBTI community.
Given the similar absence of LGBTI anti-vilifications provisions under Commonwealth law, this means Victoria’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community do not have any recourse to legislative anti-vilification protection.
There are, however, protections against both racial and religious vilification under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.[xiii]
With homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification just as serious, and just as detrimental, as racial and religious vilification, there is no reason why LGBTI people should not have equivalent protections under Victorian law.
Summary: There is currently no anti-vilification coverage for LGBTI people under Victorian law. However, given there are existing protections against racial and religious vilification, LGBTI anti-vilification laws should be introduced, too.
Significantly, in 2019, Fiona Patten MLC of the Reason Party introduced a Bill to amend the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act to include sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes (alongside gender and disability). This prompted a parliamentary inquiry into anti-vilification protections – see my submission to that inquiry here.
This inquiry is expected to report in March 2021. Hopefully, this Bill and inquiry prompts the Victorian Government and Parliament to pass this long-overdue, and much-needed, reform.
In conclusion, while the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 covers all groups within the Victorian LGBTI community against discrimination (or at least will soon, when the amendments introduced as part of the ban on conversion practices take effect), it is clear there is still plenty of work to do, including reforming the overly-generous religious exceptions contained in the Act, and ensuring LGBTI Victorians have equivalent access to anti-vilification protections as those based on race and religion.
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[i] This definition remains in subsection 4(1) of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
[ii] Subsection 4(1), Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
[iii] For example, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which was amended in 2013, defines ‘sexual orientation’ as “a person’s sexual orientation towards:
(a) persons of the same sex; or
(b) persons of a different sex; or
(c) persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.”
[iv] Subsection 4(1), Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
[v] Potentially modelled on the definition adopted by the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984: “gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth.” [Although obviously exact wording should be agreed with Victoria’s transgender community.]
[vi] While the inclusion of ‘intersex status’ in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was seen as world leading at the time, intersex activists now prefer the terminology ‘sex characteristics’ be used as a protected attribute.
[Again, the final wording of the new definition would need to be agreed in consultation with Victoria’s intersex community.]
[vii] Defined in section 81 as “(a) a body established for a religious purpose; or (b) an entity that establishes, or directs, controls or administers, an educational or other charitable entity that is intended to be, and is, conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles.”
[viii] Subsection (82)(1) “Nothing in Part 4 applies to-
(a) the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
(b) the training or education of people seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or
(c) the selection or appointment of people to perform functions in relation to, or otherwise participate in, any religious observance or practice.”
[ix] Not only is it unclear why this section is necessary (given the protections contained in Part 4 only apply in specific areas of public life, such as employment, education, the provision of goods and services and accommodation, rather than establishing a general right to non-discrimination), it is also concerning that this ‘special right’ extends to unincorporated associations (because ‘person’ is defined in subsection 4(1) of the Equal Opportunity Act as “person includes an unincorporated association and, in relation to a natural person, means a person of any age.”)
[x] The same wording was used in both subsections 82(3) and 83(3) of the then Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
[xi] “Religious groups hit out at Labor’s move to rewrite state’s equal opportunity laws”, The Age, 8 December 2014.
[xii] As passed in the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Act 2015.
[xiii] Section 7 prohibits racial vilification while section 8 prohibits religious vilification: Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.
2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010?”
This is quite an interesting article. I think that there is something in that phrase ‘religious sensitivities’ that seems like a bit of a barn soot rather than a loophole. I wonder what the interpretation of that word has been in practice?
I’m not sure how that particular phrase has been interpreted by the courts, but it does seem like a bit of a ‘catch-all’, doesn’t it?