Freedom of religion important for Catholic social services

Australians tend to readily identify with the freedom to hold, or not to hold, religious beliefs. But, to what extent should individuals or organisations be free to act on the basis of their religious beliefs?

This is an issue currently under consideration by the Victorian Parliament, as it reviews elements of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995. The issue is important for the direction of Catholic social services.

Charitable and welfare activities are an integral part of the Church's mission. This is clearly established from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI summarised it neatly in his Encyclical, God is Love: 'The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.'

Catholic agencies, in the provision of their wide range of social services and support for those most in need in the community, are thus carrying out an essential function of the Church. They do this on behalf of the Church and the broader Catholic community.

A religious purpose — bringing Christ's love to those in need through services of compassion and justice — is thus at the heart of Catholic social services. Because of this purpose, organisations need to be able to recruit people who support the social mission of the Church, and whose conduct will not compromise or undermine the witness of the Church. We need to 'recruit for mission'.

We also need to be able to take religious affiliation into account in selecting senior staff. If leaders are not affiliated with the Church, then the organisation will lose its mission. Some of our best leaders are not in fact Catholic — but a critical mass within an organisation's leadership does need to be.

There are also service areas where the beliefs and religious commitment of staff are particularly relevant. You can't authentically provide pre-marriage education, for example, if you're not convinced of the importance of marriage.

Social service agencies in general bring compassion and professional competence to their work. Catholic bodies have further obligations. The care provided by Catholic agencies reflects their support for the unborn, and for the sanctity of the life of the elderly and infirm. Promotion of a family based on marriage as the best environment for raising children is another characteristic of Catholic social services.

Catholic agencies need to be able to apply these principles to deliver quality Catholic services — the alternative is to diverge from the Catholic understanding of the world.

The Act currently recognises these rights to reflect Catholic teaching and requirements: section 75 (2) exempts 'bodies established for religious purposes' from its broad anti-discrimination provisions where this is necessary to enable them to conform with the doctrines of their religion, or to avoid injury to religious sensitivities.

These provisions are important, yet they are quite limited in their application.

Marriage, family relations, religious belief, and sexuality are areas covered by the Act that could, in some circumstances, conflict with the obligations of Catholic organisations, so continued exemption is needed. Catholic social services might also discriminate on the basis of gender, but only in relation to the clergy, and to members of a religious order or association.

Catholic teaching would not permit discrimination on the basis of any of the remaining attributes currently specified in the Act. These include age, impairment, industrial activity, physical features, pregnancy and race. Removal of these exemptions from the statute would make clearer the restricted nature of the exemptions that apply in practice.

A key issue is whether, as a community, we have the right balance between freedom of religion and other rights.

Freedom of religion is a fundamental right. It goes to the core of a person's being.

In relation to action on the basis of one's religion or beliefs, Article 18(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes a priority for action that that is an emanation of religious belief and commitment. The enquiry has not identified actual problems arising from the conduct of religiously-inspired organisations, which indicates that this priority is not an issue in practice today.

The current review challenges all stakeholders to articulate how best the goals of equal opportunity and minimisation of discrimination can be pursued.

Dialogue on these issues can serve to strengthen the appreciation within the community of the place of freedom of religion within the human rights spectrum; and of the extent to which Catholic agencies need to be able to take religious commitments and beliefs into account in their staffing decisions; and in serving the community in accordance with Catholic teaching.


Denis Fitzgerald is Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Victoria.

Topic tags: Denis Fitzgerald, Catholic Social Services Victoria, equal opportunity, victora, ngos, catholic schools



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