Briefing Paper on Religious Exemptions under the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 (Vic)

The Victorian parliamentary Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into whether any amendments should be made to the permanent exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 (Vic). The Act prohibits unlawful discrimination on the basis of protected attributes, including age, religious belief or activity, sex, race, sexual orientation, political belief, impairment and marital status. The Act also contains over fifty exceptions that permit discrimination on the basis of one or more of those attributes. Currently, exceptions are made for single sex clubs, sporting clubs and religious institutions, among others.

In addition to these exceptions, section 83 of the Act provides a mechanism to apply for, on a case by case basis, exemptions that effectively allow a person or organisation to engage in conduct that would otherwise constitute unlawful discrimination under the Act.

The Human Rights Law Resource Centre considers that the permanent exceptions, including the religious exceptions, should be removed from the Act and replaced by a regime that allows for temporary exemptions in cases where it is reasonable and proportionate to discriminate (similar to the section 83 temporary exemptions regime).

The model proposed ascribes value to all human rights, including the right to freedom of religion and the right to equality. Neither of these rights is absolute in law or in practice and, in cases of conflict, neither should automatically prevail. Instead, competing interests should be considered and balanced. If a discriminatory policy or practice is explained and shown to be reasonable and proportionate then the discrimination would be allowed.

This Briefing Paper on the Removal of Religious Exemptions from the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 (Vic) is set out as follows:

  • background to the exceptions review;
  • amendments proposed by the HRLRC; and
  • responses to arguments against reform.