Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016

Update: 15 January 2017

 

Unfortunately, this legislation was voted down by the Victorian Legislative Council on 6 December 2016.

 

As reported by The Age here (‘Coalition and conservative crossbenchers unite to vote down equal rights bills’), the Liberal and National Parties rejected the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016, describing it as an attack on ‘religious freedom’.

 

Of course, it was nothing of the sort – instead it was a modest (some might argue too modest) reform that would have simply required religious schools and other religious bodies to demonstrate that any discrimination against LGBT employees was because of an ‘inherent requirement’ of the relevant job. Nothing less, and nothing more.

 

But even that was too much for Coalition MLCs, meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers at religious schools, and LGBT employees at other religious organisations, can continue to be discriminated against for at least another two years, solely because of who they are and irrespective of the responsibilities of the actual role they are performing.

 

Hopefully, Victoria’s LGBTI community remembers this shameful sell-out by the Liberal and National Parties when they cast their ballots on 24 November 2018 – and that the next Parliament strengthens the state’s LGBTI anti-discrimination laws as a matter of priority in early 2019.

 

Original Post:

 

Ten days ago I wrote about the first of two LGBTI law reforms put forward by the Andrews Labor Government that are currently before the Victorian Parliament – the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016.

This post will discuss the second – the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016.

As the title suggests, this Bill will amend the religious exceptions currently contained in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, making it more difficult, in certain circumstances, for religious bodies and schools to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity[i].

It does this by reintroducing the ‘inherent requirements test’ for employment by religious bodies or schools, which was part of the Act as passed in 2010, but which was subsequently repealed by the Baillieu Liberal-National Government in 2011 before it commenced operation.

This test is set out in clauses 3 and 4 of the Bill, which would amend the current exceptions applying to religious bodies and religious schools featured in sections 82 and 83 respectively:

“(3) Nothing in Part 4 applies to anything done in relation to the employment of a person by a religious body where-

(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 the person does not meet that inherent requirement.

(4) The nature of the religious body and the religious doctrines, beliefs or principles in accordance with which it is conducted must be taken into account in determining what is an inherent requirement for the purposes of subsection (3).”[ii]

As you can see from this proposed wording, these are very modest changes. All the Bill does is to remove the ‘blanket’ ability for religious bodies and schools to discriminate against all employees on the basis of these attributes, replacing it with a slightly narrower ability whereby, in order to discriminate, the body or school must show that such discrimination is required because of the particular position involved.

As described by Attorney-General Martin Pakula in his second reading speech:

“A large number of people are employed by or seek to be employed by religious bodies and schools in Victoria, in a range of different positions. In these circumstances, it is fair to ask these organisations to demonstrate the necessary connection between their religious beliefs and principles, and proposed discrimination in employment because of an individual’s personal attribute…

“What the test will do, and appropriately so, is require those organisations that do seek to discriminate in employment on religious grounds to demonstrate the necessary connection between their particular religious beliefs and the need to discriminate.”

pakulamartin58250

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula

Despite the extremely modest nature of the Bill, it has nevertheless attracted strong opposition from the Australian Christian Lobby[iii] and the Liberal and National Opposition, meaning that, although it has cleared the Legislative Assembly where the Government has the numbers, it is unclear whether it will be passed in the Legislative Council where the Government does not, and where it is expected to be debated later this week (with Victorian Parliament sitting from Tuesday 11 October).

Given this, I have sent a short email to all members of the Victorian upper house, encouraging them to pass this Bill, with the text included at the end of this post.

Before we get to that, however, an important caveat. Regular readers of this blog would be aware that I am opposed to religious exceptions beyond those that are necessary for the appointment of religious office-holders, and for the observance of religious ceremonies.

Indeed, these views formed part of my criticisms of the Victorian anti-discrimination framework, expressed earlier this year in my post What’s Wrong With Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010?[iv]

On this basis, I would obviously support amendments to the religious exceptions contained in the Act that go beyond what has been proposed by the Andrews Labor Government. This would, at the very least, include extending the ‘inherent requirement test’ to protect those people accessing services, including education, from these religious bodies and schools, in addition to employees.

However, we have already seen an unsuccessful attempt by the Victorian Government, this term, to restrict the rights of religious bodies to discriminate against people accessing services – it sought to prevent discrimination against same-sex couples by religious adoption agencies as part of the broader introduction of adoption equality.

Those particular amendments to religious exceptions were defeated in the Victorian Legislative Council, while the overall reform passed.

In this context, it is difficult to see how any amendments to religious exceptions that go further than those currently proposed would be passed by the upper house[v]. Indeed, the fate of the narrow changes that are contained in the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 still seems precarious.

As a result, I have chosen to send this short email calling for these reforms to be passed, as a minimum standard, and in the hope that more comprehensive changes may be able to be made by a subsequent parliament, one where (hopefully) the influence of the extreme right is less powerful[vi].

**********

Monday 10 October 2016

Dear Member of the Victorian Legislative Council

Please Support the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016

I am writing to call on you to support the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 when it comes before the Legislative Council.

This Bill is an important reform that will better protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees, and prospective employees, from discrimination that has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs.

As noted by Attorney-General Martin Pakula in his second reading speech, these reforms simply ask religious bodies and schools to “demonstrate the necessary connection between their religious beliefs and principles, and proposed discrimination in employment because of an individual’s personal attribute.”

These are modest changes, and it is difficult to see how the introduction of an ‘inherent requirement test’ can be argued against.

In practice, voting against the reforms contained in the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 is effectively saying that LGBT people can be discriminated against simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, even where there is absolutely no reason why they cannot perform a particular role.

I do not believe such an extreme ideological position is sustainable in 2016. I sincerely hope you agree, and in doing so, vote for this Bill.

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided below, should you have any questions, or wish to clarify any of the above.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Footnotes:

[i] Noting that intersex status is not a protected attribute under Victorian law.

[ii] The wording of the amendment in relation to religious schools is largely similar.

[iii] Media Release, Is this kind of Government interference really warranted?, 1 September 2016.

[iv] Also expressed through my Submission to Victorian Greens Equal Opportunity Amendment (LGBTI Equality) Bill 2016.

[v] Perhaps the only complementary change that stands some chance of success in the current political environment would be the introduction of a provision requiring religious bodies and schools seeking to use the ‘inherent requirement exception’ to advertise the fact it will discriminate against LGBT employees with respect to particular positions, rather than simply asserting this ability as part of any defence to discrimination proceedings. However, determining whether such an amendment would be passed is best left to Victorian LGBTI advocates.

[vi] In drafting this email I have been careful to avoid language that rules out the need for further reform, or that would contradict amendments to the Bill, such as those proposed by the Victorian Greens (which would limit the ability of religious bodies or schools to discriminate to a greater degree), even if it is my personal view that such amendments are unlikely to be successful at this time.

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Victoria’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016

Update: 14 January 2017

 

Unfortunately, this necessary and important legislation was voted down by the Victorian Legislative Council on December 6 2016.

 

As reported by SBS here (‘Gender change voted down in Vic parly’), the Victorian Liberal and National Parties combined with cross-bench conservative MLCs to reject the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016.

 

In the process, Victorian Coalition MPs have ensured that the process for transgender people to amend their birth certificates remains onerous, and continues to exclude a large number of trans and gender diverse people completely, especially those who identify as non-binary and gender-fluid.

 

The decision to reject this vital reform was shameful, and will hopefully be remembered by all LGBTI Victorians when they go to the polls next, in November 2018.

 

Original post:

 

The Andrews Labor Government, elected in November 2014, has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Victorians in its first two years in office. This includes:

  • Creating the nation’s first Minister for Equality (Martin Foley)
  • Appointing a Gender and Sexuality Commissioner (Rowena Allen) and establishing an LGBTI Taskforce
  • Legalising adoption by same-sex couples
  • Apologising to people unjustly convicted for historical homosexual offences
  • Committing funds to establish a Pride Centre, and
  • Defending the Safe Schools program from Commonwealth Government attacks.

It is currently pursuing two further important items of law reform. The first of these is the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 (the second, the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016, will be the subject of a later post).

As noted by Attorney-General Martin Pakula in the Bill’s second reading speech, “[t]he bill implements the government’s pre-election commitment to remove barriers for trans, gender diverse and intersex Victorians to apply for new birth certificates.”

Specifically, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 will:

  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to undergo gender affirmation surgery in order to alter their official records, including birth certificates
  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to be unmarried in order to alter their records (thus ending the policy of ‘forced trans divorce’)
  • Simplify the process for adults to alter their records – with the new system based on a statutory declaration by the individual, supported by a statement from another adult who has known them for more than 12 months
  • Allow children to alter their records for the first time (with the application made by parent(s) or guardian(s), and supported by a statement from a doctor or registered psychologist that the alteration is in the child’s interest), and
  • Allow individuals to nominate a descriptor of their choice – ‘male’, ‘female’ or any other term chosen by the applicant (provided it is not obscene or offensive) – to recognise their trans, gender diverse or non-binary identity.

Writing as a cisgender gay man, these reforms seem very straightforward – allowing trans and gender diverse people to access documentation that reflects their identity, removing inappropriate and unjust barriers (such as the requirement to undergo gender affirmation surgery – something many trans people will never do – and abolishing the horrific practice of forced trans divorce).

The reforms also appear to be widely supported by trans, gender diverse and intersex advocates, with Transgender Victoria’s Chair Brenda Appleton noting that “[t]his is a profoundly important reform for our community, as many of us are currently prevented from changing the most basic form of documentation to reflect our true identity.”[i]

Intersex advocate Gina Wilson also welcomed the changes in the same media release: “[f]or the Victorian Parliament to say ‘we give you here a document that acknowledges the truth of your life’ would be life changing… It is very difficult to explain to someone who has never struggled to fit in the way Intersex people often have to how much joy and relief that would bring.”

Consequently, one would hope such legislation, respecting the autonomy of people to nominate their own gender identity or sex, rather than having one imposed upon them (by the medical profession, and ultimately by the Government), would be uncontroversial.

Alas, those hopes were forlorn. The Bill has been opposed by the ‘unholy’ triumvirate of contemporary Australian politics: the right-wing of the Coalition, the Australian Christian Lobby, and News Corp (in this case, via the Herald Sun).

The Bill has already been debated, and voted on, in the Legislative Assembly, where it only passed by a margin of 45 votes to 35. The debate leading up to this vote saw a number of ill-informed and, frankly, intolerant, contributions by some members of the Liberal and National Parties, perhaps none ‘less-informed’ than that by the Member for Ripon, Louise Staley. Her speech included the following ignorant observations:

“I oppose this bill. This bill goes too far. This government is in thrall to highly contested gender theories. This is the sort of post-modernist mumbo jumbo we have come to expect from the Andrews Labor Government…

“I ask the house to reflect on what we are doing when we allow a man – and the statistics show most transgender people are born male – who has male chromosomes and who naturally has the right to enjoy the privileges we as a society still give to men, such as earning more and dominating business and politics, to choose to be recognised by the state as a woman because he feels like a sex he biologically is not and cannot by definition actually ever experience. I cannot help feel that such men are engaged in a radical form of mansplaining, telling women what really makes one a woman…

“The feminist in me objects strongly to a man changing his birth certificate to female because he feels enough of a woman to identify as one but not enough to take the step of permanently doing so…

“There are also women-only spaces, services, shelters et cetera that explicitly exclude men for feminist or safety reasons. Allowing preoperative transgender people to join these bodies – especially, I may add, to make political points or to pursue activism – will at some point cause great distress to all involved.”

Many of the worst aspects of transphobia – deliberately misgendering trans people, invalidating non-binary identities, creating panic about trans women accessing women’s spaces – are present and accounted for in Ms Staley’s offensive and outrageous speech. If you want to read the full catastrophe, you can find it here (but make sure you don’t eat immediately beforehand).

160930-louise-staley

Transphobic Victorian Liberal MLA Louise Staley

Of course, right-wing Liberal and National Party MPs are not the only ones capable of extreme transphobia. As expected, Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby have lived down to their already-low public reputation by inciting bathroom panic as part of their campaign against the Bill. In a web post titled “Why is This Government Putting Women at Risk?”[ii] (yes, seriously), they wrote:

“Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said radical changes that would allow men identifying as women to enter women’s private spaces such as toilets and change rooms needed wider discussion…

“Mr Shelton said Mr Andrews [sic] new laws would make private space unsafe for women. “Why should a man identifying as a woman be allowed into a woman’s gym or a domestic violence shelter? Why should biological males identifying as women be allowed into women’s public toilets and shower facilities?””

It seems the ACL is intent on importing the worst kind of hate-speech from its international counterparts, and especially from anti-LGBTI groups in the United States, whipping up fear against trans women and vilifying people on the basis of their gender identity[iii].

And of course, where right-wing Liberals and Nationals and the ACL ‘lead’ (into the gutter), News Corp papers usually follow – with the Herald Sun backing the transphobic campaign against what should, on its merits, be uncontentious legislation.

In an appalling article titled “Laws allowing Victorians to choose sex on birth certificate raise safety concerns,”[iv] Rita Panahi wrote:

“New laws allowing Victorians to choose their sex on a birth certificate will compromise the safety of female-only spaces, including single-sex schools  changing rooms, domestic violence shelters and even prisons, according to a women’s rights group…

“The proposed changes, which passed the Lower House earlier this month, could see boys and men identifying as female – but with no intention of undergoing gender reassignment or clinical treatment – being allowed access to areas reserved for girls and women.”

Umm, Rita, that would be because they are girls and women, and therefore have the right to access ‘areas reserved for girls and women’. And, just like Ms Staley and Mr Shelton before you, you should already be aware that deliberating misgendering trans people in this way is extremely offensive.

The Bill that has prompted this backlash is expected to be debated in the Legislative Council in the week beginning Tuesday 11 October. Given that the ALP does not have a majority in the Upper House (even with the addition of Greens and Sex Party MLCs), and the ongoing scare campaign against its provisions, it is now uncertain whether the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 will in fact be passed.

As a result, I have sent the below short email to all Members of the Victorian Legislative Council, calling on them to support the Bill. If you have time between now and October 10th, I encourage you to do the same. You can find the contact list for MLCs here.

**********

Friday 30 September 2016

Dear Member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly

Please Support the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016

I am writing to you to urge you to support the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 when it is debated and voted upon in October.

This legislation is important because it will remove the barriers that exist for trans, gender diverse and intersex people in terms of accessing new birth certificates.

Specifically, I understand that the Bill will:

  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to undergo gender affirmation surgery in order to alter their official records, including birth certificates
  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to be unmarried in order to alter their records (thus ending the policy of ‘forced trans divorce’)
  • Simplify the process for adults to alter their records – with the new system based on a statutory declaration by the individual, supported by a statement from another adult who has known them for more than 12 months
  • Allow children to alter their records for the first time (with the application made by parent(s) or guardian(s), and supported by a statement from a doctor or registered psychologist that the alteration is in the child’s interest), and
  • Allow individuals to nominate a descriptor of their choice – ‘male’, ‘female’ or any other term chosen by the applicant (provided it is not obscene or offensive) – to recognise their trans, gender diverse or non-binary identity.

These appear to be straightforward reforms that respect the autonomy of people to nominate their own gender identity or sex, rather than having one imposed upon them by clinicians or the Government. I note they are also supported by trans, gender diverse and intersex advocates.

As highlighted by Jo Hirst, these reforms “won’t mean much to most Victorians, but to an estimated 4 per cent of the population it means everything. It’s certainly significant for my little boy, who’s transgender. He recently told me it would mean more to him than food.”[v]

Hirst then further observes that “[t]o have their birth certificate reflect their true identity would empower young transgender people to fully participate in all the educational, social, sporting and job opportunities our society has to offer. Most importantly it would give them a sense of validation that would help them feel whole.”

I therefore call on you to support the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 to better recognise the human rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex Victorians, by simplifying the process by which they can ensure official records reflect their gender identity or sex.

If you have any questions or would like additional information, please contact me at the details provided below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

**********

Footnotes:

[i] Media Release, Birth certificate reforms will deliver respect and recognition for trans, gender diverse and intersex Victorians, 12 September 2016.

[ii] Australian Christian Lobby, Why is this Government Putting Women at Risk?, 29 August 2016.

[iii] Noting of course that anti-LGBTI vilification is not prohibited currently under either Victorian or Commonwealth law.

[iv] Herald Sun, Laws allowing Victorians to choose sex on birth certificate raise safety concerns, 27 September 2016.

[v] Sydney Morning Herald, Surgical sterilisation shouldn’t be the cost of correcting a transgender person’s birth certificate, 15 September 2016.

Submission to Victorian Greens Equal Opportunity Amendment (LGBTI Equality) Bill 2016

The Greens Member for Prahran in the Victorian Parliament, Sam Hibbins, is currently undertaking consultation on his exposure draft Bill to amend the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

Full details of the consultation process can be found here. The following is my submission:

Mr Sam Hibbins MP

Member for Prahran

94 Chapel St

Windsor VIC 3181

sam.hibbins@parliament.vic.gov.au

Friday 12 February 2016

Dear Mr Hibbins

Consultation on Equal Opportunity Amendment (LGBTI Equality) Bill 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission on your exposure draft Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill.

Thank you also for your commitment to improving the anti-discrimination protections that are provided to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and bisexual (LGBTI) Victorians.

I agree with your statement, made as part of this consultation, that “The [Equal Opportunity] Act needs updating so that it better protects same-sex and gender diverse Victorians from discrimination at school, at work and in the community” (although I note that the phrase ‘same-sex and gender diverse’ does not include intersex people).

I believe that your exposure draft Bill addresses two of three major deficiencies in the current Act (and that I have written about previously – What’s Wrong With the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010).

Specifically, the Bill would significantly improve the protected attributes that are included in the Act, by:

  • Introducing a new protected attribute of ‘intersex status’, consistent with the protections offered under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and
  • Updating the definition of ‘gender identity’ to be broader, and to remove any requirement to identify as either male or female in order to attract anti-discrimination coverage (and again in line with the 2013 Federal Labor Government reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act).

Both of these changes are overdue, and are welcome.

I also support the proposed amendments to reduce the current excessive and unjustified ‘exceptions’ that are offered to religious organisations and individuals allowing them to discriminate against LGBT Victorians in circumstances where it would otherwise be unlawful to do so.

The balance which the Bill strikes – removing religious exceptions in schools and other services, in employment and by individuals, while retaining exceptions for ‘core religious functions’, such as the appointment of ministers of religion and the conduct of religious ceremonies[i] – appears to be a reasonable one.

However, there is one major deficiency of Victorian anti-discrimination and vilification law that your exposure draft Equal Opportunity Amendment (LGBTI Equality) Bill 2016 does not address – and that is the absence of anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI people.

As I have written previously:

“There are… protections against both racial and religious vilification under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.

“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.”[ii]

In this context, the major suggestion I would make for improvement to your exposure draft Bill is for you to consider amendments to introduce protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, equivalent to the current prohibitions on racial and religious vilification contained in the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.

Outside of these three main issues – protected attributes, religious exceptions and anti-vilification protections – the other reforms proposed by the exposure draft Bill, to “restore… the powers of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to conduct public inquiries, enter into enforceable undertakings and to issue compliance notices” and to “restore… the power for the Commission to order someone to provide information and documents, and to order a witness… to attend and answer question” also appear reasonable.

Overall, then, I support the provisions contained in the exposure draft Equal Opportunity Amendment (LGBTI Equality) Bill 2016, but encourage you to consider adding provisions to provide protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Beyond the content of the proposed Bill itself, however, I would like to make the additional point that, given the failure of the Victorian Legislative Council to support reforms in late 2015 to ensure that religious organisations could not discriminate against LGBTI people accessing adoption services, the passage of any of the above reforms would appear to be difficult, at least in the current term of Parliament.

In this context, I urge you and the Victorian Greens to work collaboratively with the state Labor Government, the Sex Party (who also supported last year’s reforms), and the Victorian LGBTI community, to persuade remaining cross-benchers, and indeed sympathetic Liberal and National MLCs, to support at least some of these reforms now – while retaining the option of passing the remainder following the 2018 election.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. If you would like any additional information, or to clarify any of the above, please contact me at the details provided below.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

160212 Sam Hibbins

Member for Prahran, Sam Hibbins MP.

Update: 14 January 2017

The Greens introduced an amended version of this legislation into Victorian Parliament in mid-2016.

Renamed the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Equality for Students) Bill 2016, as the name suggests it focused specifically on ensuring religious schools could not discriminate against LGBT students.

Its major provision would have added the following new section to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010:

84A Discrimination against school students not exempt

Sections 82(2), 83 and 84 do not permit discrimination by a person or body that establishes, directs, controls, administers or is an educational institution that is a school against a student on the basis of the student’s sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity.”

Unfortunately, despite the modest nature of this proposed reform, it was rejected by the Victorian Legislative Council on November 9 2016, by a margin of 32 to 6 (as reported by the Star Observer here).

Footnotes:

[i] The Bill would leave sub-section 82(1) of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 in tact:

“Nothing in Part 4 applies to-

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religions or members of a religious order; or
  • the training or education of people seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or
  • the selection or appointment of people to perform functions in relation to, or otherwise participate in, any religious observance or practice.”

[ii] What’s Wrong With the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 

What’s Wrong With the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010?

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 on all three fronts. It is time for the Parliament to act to ensure LGBTI Victorians enjoy adequate protections against homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination and vilification.

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Protected Attributes

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 introduced ‘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 by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

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 (that remains in place today):

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 applies to transgender people, although, given its focus on ‘binary’ genders, it would appear to only cover those people whose sex was designated as male at birth, but now identify as female (and vice versa). It does not appear to cover other people along a more expansive gender identity spectrum, including people who do not identify as either male or female.

The definition in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 is therefore no longer best practice, and a new, more inclusive definition of gender identity should be adopted[v] to ensure all transgender people benefit from anti-discrimination protection.

Intersex Victorians are even worse off when it comes to current state anti-discrimination legislation. Paragraph (b) of the definition of gender identity, above, offers their only protection under Victorian law, and it is problematic because:

  • It inappropriately conflates intersex status, which relates to physical sex characteristics, with gender identity, and
  • It only appears to protect people with intersex variations where they identify as either male or female.

In order to remedy this situation, a stand-alone protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ should be added to the Act, based on the call by intersex activists in the March 2017 Darlington Statement[vi].

Summary: Lesbian, gay and bisexual Victorians are covered by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, although some transgender people are likely to fall outside the current binary definition of gender identity. Likewise, many people with intersex variations living within Victoria are unlikely to be covered by the protections offered under the existing Act. Therefore, a more inclusive definition of gender identity should be adopted, alongside a new, stand-alone protected attribute of sex characteristics.

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Religious Exceptions

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 current 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 (for more on this legislation, see here).

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 next election due on 24 November 2018, the chances of any further reform to the LGBT anti-discrimination protections contained in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 during the current term appear slim.

Nevertheless, the Andrews Labor Government generally, and the Minister for Equality Martin Foley MP specifically, should continue to push for changes in this area, moving beyond simply reinstating the ‘inherent requirement’ test for employment to considering how best to prohibit discrimination against LGBTI people accessing services. Even if they are unable to pass such reforms this term, it should be firmly on the agenda for the next Parliament.

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 – although that goal remains many years away.

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.

While 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, the parliamentary defeat of both measures must put further reform of this area in doubt until after the 2018 election.

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Anti-Vilification Coverage

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.

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In conclusion, it is clear there is plenty wrong with the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 – from the need to update the definition of gender identity, and to introduce a new protected attribute covering sex characteristics, to reforming the overly-generous religious exceptions contained in the Act, and to ensuring LGBTI Victorians have equivalent access to anti-vilification protections as those based on race and religion. Which means there is plenty of work for the Government, and Parliament, to do.

 

160117 Martin Foley

Victorian Minister for Equality, Martin Foley MP.

 

Footnotes:

[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.