Saturday, 30 June 2012 00:00

Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Services (Court of Appeal) – June 2012

This case is an appeal against a 2010 VCAT decision that found Christian Youth Camps (CYC) had unlawfully discriminated against a group of same-sex attracted young people by denying them use of a CYC-owned and operated Philip Island Youth Camp.

VCAT held that CYC had discriminated against the group in contravention of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 and had not made out its claim that CYC's conduct fell within the religious exceptions of the Equal Opportunity Act. The religious exceptions in sections 75(2) and 77 of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 provide that discrimination is not prohibited by a body established for religious purposes, where the conduct conforms with the doctrines of religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of the people of the religion; or where it is necessary to comply with genuine religious beliefs or principles.

CYC appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal. The Commission intervened in the VCAT proceeding (see Cobaw Community Health Services v Christian Youth Camps (VCAT) - Submission - Jul 2010) and was a party to the appeal. The Commission's submissions in the appeal focus on the interpretation of the religious exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act in a way that is compatible with the human rights to equality (in section 8 of the Charter) and freedom of religion (in section 14 of the Charter), namely that the Charter requires a narrow interpretation of the exceptions.

The Court of Appeal handed down its judgment on 16 April 2014.

The Court dismissed the appeal by CYC and found that it had unlawfully discriminated against Cobaw and the group of same sex attracted young people on the basis of their sexual orientation. The decision considered the 'religious freedom' exemptions in sections 75 and 77 of the EOA 1995. In regard to s 75, the court held that CYC was not 'a body established for religious purposes' and therefore could not rely on the exemption. Even if CYC was such a body, the refusal was not 'necessary' to avoid injury to religious sensibilities. In regard to s 77, corporations cannot hold religious beliefs and therefore CYC could not rely on this exemption. Further, the refusal was not 'necessary' to comply with genuine religious beliefs or principles.

In a dissenting judgement, Redlich JA held that s 77 could apply to corporations as well as individuals, and that both CYC and the manager, Mr Rowe, were able to rely on the exception as their conduct was necessary in order for them to comply with their genuine religious beliefs or principles.

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