Saturday, December 10, 2005

Church-Linked Charity Can't Exclusively Employ Christians

By PATRICK GOODENOUGH (CNSNews.com) - A Baptist Church-linked association in Australia working with families affected by poverty, drug abuse and other difficulties has been denied permission to employ only committed Christians. A tribunal in Victoria ruled that restricting employment to Christians would violate the state's equal opportunity laws. The tribunal argued that it could be beneficial to the people being helped if those providing the assistance have "a diversity of beliefs." But the same tribunal, in an unrelated case, recently approved an application to allow a public swimming pool complex to offer special men-only hours, to cater to Muslim men who don't want to share the facility with women.

The decisions have disturbed Christians already worried about Victoria's separate religious tolerance legislation, under which two pastors have been found guilty of vilifying Islam and ordered to adjust their teaching and apologize (see earlier story). "This is yet another indication that the Christian faith is under very real threat in Australia," Bill Muehlenberg of the Australia Family Association said Tuesday. "The pattern of appealing to tolerance and diversity in an attempt to undermine the distinctives of Biblical Christianity is becoming a real worry." The Mornington Baptist Church, located near Australia's second-largest city, Melbourne, set up an association to help people in the local community struggling with difficulties -- by supplying food parcels, helping manage debt, and providing "mentors" to establish relationships with isolated families or individuals. Although set up as a non-profit, the Mornington Baptist Church Community Caring Inc. (MBCCCI) remains a Christian ministry closely linked to the church, whose pastor is the association's president. The MBCCCI wants its staff and volunteer counselors and coaches to be people "who have publicly accepted Christ as lord and savior, have been baptized as believers in obedience to Christ's commandment and walk in daily fellowship with Jesus." Because of the state's equal opportunity laws, the association applied for an exemption from the Victoria Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), a statutory body which functions like a court of law. VCAT deputy president Cat McKenzie dismissed the application, however, finding that in the case of paid employees, the association could not be exempt from the law. "I am not convinced on the material before me that it would be appropriate to permit discrimination among those whom it employs," she said in her recent explanation of ruling. "A diversity of beliefs among those who provide the services for which it operates may well be beneficial for those who receive those services," McKenzie continued. "A client of a particular background may feel more comfortable in approaching an MBCCCI employee of the same faith background. There will be a larger choice of employees if there is no limiting of them to those who are Christian. This may give the association a greater and more skilled employee pool from which to draw." 'Secularization process' Muehlenberg derided the VCAT decision. "This is a serious violation of religious freedom and the right of a Christian church to employ people who share their beliefs and values," he said. "I wonder how active VCAT will be if I apply for a job at our local mosque, and am refused," he mused. "Will VCAT rush to my aid and demand the Muslims hire me?" "It seems that VCAT is part of a government-led secularization process that is steadily eroding religious freedom in Australia, especially Christian religious freedom," Muehlenberg said, adding that this was being done in the name of "tolerance," "multiculturalism" and "diversity." In another recent VCAT decision before the same presiding officer, McKenzie approved an application by the council of Shepparton, a city of 60,000 two hours from Melbourne, to offer "men-only" sessions at a council-run swimming facility. The council had made the application because the proposal involved possible discrimination on the grounds of gender under the equal opportunities law. McKenzie attributed her ruling in part to the fact there was a significant number of Muslims in Shepparton, and that "some religions require that their adherents cannot appear undressed in mixed company, except in front of their immediate family." The pool complex offers "women-only" sessions on Saturday evenings. Although the swimming pool decision is not overly controversial in itself, the contrast between the two issues before VCAT has raised some eyebrows. "These two cases are important with respect to our freedom of religion," said Jenny Stokes, research director for a Victoria-based Christian ethics group. "In one case, a church charity is being told it cannot specify in advertisements that they want to employ Christians and on the other, a council is being allowed to operate specific pool sessions -- mainly for Muslim men so that they can exercise according to the beliefs of their religion." Stokes said the Morning decision had "major implications for Christian ministries and church work." Muehlenberg said it was time for Australian Christians to "stand up and be counted" over what he said appeared to be a case of all religions being preferred except for Christianity. "While we are warned in the New Testament to expect such resistance, that does not mean that we need to roll over and play dead." The Mornington Baptist Church declined to comment on the VCAT decision Tuesday. Administrator Peter Jackson did issue a brief statement giving some background. He said the association was set up "to help local families hit by poverty, substance abuse, conflict, isolation, illness and unemployment as part of the outworking of the Christian faith and the beliefs of Mornington Baptist Church." It had so far this year distributed 629 food parcels, matched 42 local families with volunteer coaches or mentors, and helped 17 families to break out of a debt cycle. Toby Baxter of the MBCCCI told a state parliamentary hearing earlier this year that the project originated from volunteers "going out and following Jesus' teaching of loving thy neighbor. There is nothing terribly controversial about that." Source: www.crosswalk.com


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