Parliament: Interesting Speeches

Family Voice Discrimination

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: Recovery from, and the management of, mental illness can mean different things to different people. For some, that may involve participation, including work roles, in spiritual or religious organisations. Unfortunately, a recent submission to the federal parliament’s inquiry into the human right to freedom of belief seemed to seek to limit this. In this submission, FamilyVoice states:

Priests and ministers exercise important positions of authority within a church. For very good reasons a religion may not wish to engage a person who has a mental illness and displays disturbed behaviour. Such behaviour would adversely affect a church service, which is sacred in nature. Providing counselling to parishioners is also a large part of the role of a religious leader. That person must be respected, otherwise they will not be sought for advice.

It goes on to make the following recommendation:

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 unjustly interferes with freedom of religion. A simple provision should be added for an exemption from the act for persons, natural or corporate, whose conscientious beliefs do not allow them to comply with the act, or with particular provisions of the act.

In recent days, FamilyVoice has come out to clarify that their submission does not seek to stop people from going to church, but rather so that churches do not have to employ people who exhibit what is called ‘disturbed behaviour’ because of their mental illness. Not only does this perpetuate a potentially harmful stereotype about people with mental illness, it also strikes me as unnecessary.

If someone is not suitable for employment as a priest, including unsuitable behaviour, and it can be proven that no amount of adjustment or support in the workplace can make them suitable for that role, then the employer is free not to hire them on the basis that they do not have the necessary skills for that role. Likewise, if a parish member is disturbing a service they should be gently removed and supported on the basis of that behaviour. As long as they are skilled and appropriate, I would argue who better to give counselling than someone who themselves face or has faced darkness and hardship?

In the last few days I have received letters from Christians about this issue. I would like to share some excerpts from those letters with you. One constituent writes:

I am a carer for someone who suffers from mental health problems. Not only is it sad that people with mental health and other related problems cannot be regarded as equal members of a congregation, but it is also appalling that their families and carers should also be alienated by virtue of their connection with those people.

Another person wrote:

As an individual diagnosed with major depression and social anxiety, as well as a follower of Christ for half of my 43 years, I was floored by the lack of compassion, logic and obvious betrayal of what is expected behaviour and ethics of a disciple of Christ.

This is not about attacking the Christian faith. This is about this specific submission and getting FamilyVoice to understand the impact these recommendations could have on real people. I may not follow a particular religion myself but even I know, as do many others, that Jesus was seen—as many religious leaders are—as a friend and protector of the underprivileged. It seems on this issue that it is time for FamilyVoice to practise, not just to preach.