RELIGIOUS provider Christian Youth Camps unlawfully discriminated against a group of same-sex attracted young people by denying them use of a facility for a weekend retreat, according to a judgement handed down yesterday by the Victorian Supreme Court.

The court upheld a previous decision by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), which had found Christian Youth Camps (CYC) discriminated against Cobaw Community Health Services on the basis of sexual orientation. The judgement also found religious exemptions did not apply in this case.

In 2007, Cobaw requested accommodation at a facility operated by CYC and was refused, leading the organisation to make a complaint to VCAT. Cobaw runs a number of programs to prevent youth suicide, including some specifically targeting same-sex attracted young people.

Cobaw staff were relieved at the finding, with chief executive Anne McLennan highlighting the lengthy legal process the organisation has gone through.

“I think this is a terrific outcome for the young people who were discriminated against and the decision vindicates their feeling that what happened to them was wrong,” she said.

“It’s been a long haul over six years but it has been worth the time and energy to get such a significant decision that clarifies the operation of equal opportunity law.”

One of the young people involved in the case, Kat Ettwell, was present at the Supreme Court’s judgement and shared McLennan’s relief.

“This makes me feel proud. There was a lot involved personally for everyone who contributed to the complaint and it’s really heartening to have the Court say today that standing up for ourselves was the right thing to do,” Ettwell said.

This is the first time religious exemptions in Victoria’s anti-discrimination law have been tested, and advocates have expressed relief at the decision.

Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convener Anna Brown told the Star Observer that given the breadth of Victoria’s religious exemptions, it could have gone the other way.

“This decision goes some way to help lessen the impact of the religious exemptions in equal opportunity law but these exemptions are unjustifiably broad to begin with, and further reform is needed to protect young same-sex attracted people from the harmful effects of discrimination,” she said.

“Members of the public shouldn’t have to suffer through years of litigation in order to clarify whether they can access basic goods and services. At the very least, we need greater transparency so people know where they stand.”

Human Rights Law Centre’s advocacy director Rachel Ball told the Star Observer the judgement was noteworthy for its complexity and length, remarking it is a unique decision in the sphere of Victorian anti-discrimination law.

The Supreme Court also commented on the case being unprecedented in scale and complexity, with the judgement making extensive reference to the specifics of religious scripture.

“It is a reflection of the novelty — and inherent difficulty — of the questions which arise when rights come into conflict. Such questions have been much litigated elsewhere but, for Victoria, represent hitherto uncharted territory,” the judgement read.

In making the case for religious exemptions to apply CYC had argued to VCAT in the initial hearing they were not taking issue with the group being comprised of same-sex attracted people, but rather that Cobaw were saying it was okay to be same-sex attracted.

CYC argued their refusal of service “was about the promotion of homosexuality as natural and healthy to a wide range of young people”. This distinction was rejected by the tribunal.

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