Human rights commission’s intervention sparks chaplaincy changes at Ambulance Victoria

Si Gladman / 18 October 2023

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) has instructed Ambulance Victoria to reform its hiring policy for chaplaincy roles following advocacy by the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Late last month, VEOHRC requested that Ambulance Victoria remove the current requirement that applicants be accredited for religious ministry and also asked that it include a statement in the job description that chaplain roles were “open to applicants of all faiths or religious backgrounds, including those without any religious belief”.

In July, RSA president Meredith Doig wrote to VEOHRC alerting it to prima facie contraventions of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 by Ambulance Victoria.

The RSA had discovered that Ambulance Victoria job advertisements for chaplains required that candidates be adherents of a faith/religion, with one selection criterion stating that candidates must be:

Accredited for ministry from within denominations or faith communities having official status with the National Council of Churches and/or Victorian Council of Churches, Faith Communities Council of Victoria or equivalent.

In her letter to VEOHRC, Dr Doig argued that the effect of this criterion was to prevent non-religious people from applying, even though they may be otherwise qualified for the role.

“It is important to emphasise that there is nothing in the work of an ambulance chaplain that necessitates a person being a person of faith,” wrote Dr Doig.

“The work of ambulance chaplains as described in the job description is non-religious and could be performed by any otherwise qualified person regardless of their faith affiliation. Atheists and other non-religious people are capable of performing the work of chaplains.

“Indeed, the State of Victoria has previously accepted this proposition in respect of school chaplains who can be ‘of any faith or no faith’.”

Through a freedom of information request earlier this year, the RSA discovered that Ambulance Victoria employed six full-time chaplains (not the volunteer chaplains), with all six being from Christian denominations.

The state’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against job applicants on the ground of religious belief or activity. It also makes it a criminal offence for any person to publish “an advertisement or other notice that indicates, or could be reasonably understood as indicating, that any person intends to engage in any conduct” that would amount to unlawful discrimination.

Late last month, VEOHRC informed us that Commissioner Ro Allen had raised the matter with the Chief Executive of Ambulance Victoria, Jane Miller, and the commission shared the correspondence that took place between the parties.

Ms Miller told VEOHRC that Ambulance Victoria had undertaken a “careful examination of the position description” and argued that it had “not engaged in conduct that would contravene relevant anti-discrimination legislation”.

However, she said that Ambulance Victoria had “identified some opportunities to better reflect AV’s position regarding some duties of the chaplain role” and confirmed that the organisation was addressing them.

In further supporting information, Ambulance Victoria conceded that the accreditation requirement gave rise to “some ambiguity”, but said the position did not require applicants to be accredited by any specific church or other faith group. 

“Rather, the requirement is that the applicant belong to a body which has a level of governance over their practice and is not limited to any particular religious belief or group,” it said.

“We do acknowledge that further efforts could be made to make this specific item clearer, and AV will address this by revising the position description accordingly.”

Ambulance Victoria also said that its pastoral care program was “not a religious service” and did “not involve proselytising or evangelising”.

“We understand that chaplaincy has traditional Christian origins, however, AV has made efforts to broaden the diversity of the service so that people of all beliefs, or those who do not have a particular religious belief, can have access to, and provide, pastoral care,” the statement said.

In response, VEOHRC told Ambulance Victoria that it would “welcome the amendments” to the position description, and suggested that it: 1) remove the requirement that applicants be accredited for ministry; 2) clarify that only chaplains who were religious and capable of conducting religious services were required to do so; 3) explicitly state that the chaplain role was open to applicants of all faiths or religious, including those without any religious belief.

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Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash.

All the more reason.