HOBART, Tasmania, Sept. 20, 2013 ( – Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner has suggested the state’s new Catholic Archbishop may be found in violation of state law if he restricts altar serving to boys, raising questions about religious freedom in the state.

Archbishop Julian Porteous was installed as head of the Archdiocese of Hobart, the state’s only diocese, on Sept. 18th.

The same day the Archbishop told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation that the Church has traditionally seen service at the altar as a preparation for the priesthood and so he would like to bar girls from serving once they reach high school age.


“When you move into high school, I think it's more appropriate that we have men, young men, who are serving on the altar,” he said. “But certainly girls of primary school age, that's no problem at all.”

But Robin Banks, the state’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, told the news agency that such an action may not qualify for a religious exception under the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act.

“There's a defence that says a religious institution can discriminate on the basis of gender if it's required by the doctrines of the religion,” said Banks.

“It gets down to a question of is it consistent with the doctrines of the religion to exclude people on the basis of gender,” she said. “If it's not, then the exception wouldn't apply.”

The Catholic Church currently permits women to act as altar servers but promotes the use of only altar boys as a “noble tradition” and leaves the decision to individual bishops.

Altar girls were first formally allowed in 1994, although they were present before that. In a letter informing the world’s bishops of the decision, the Vatican said it “respects” a bishop’s choice to allow altar girls, but “wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar.”

“The obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue,” they added.

The letter also pointed out that lay people may be given roles in the liturgy without thereby “having any right to exercise them.”

Archbishop Porteous has in the past been a vocal critic of anti-discrimination legislation, which has often been used in Western countries to target people of faith and traditional values.

In a column in 2011, while he was serving as Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, the Archbishop emphasized that there can be “just” forms of discrimination.

“The future of our society depends upon our ability to discriminate between good and evil, right and wrong and what is or is not acceptable behaviour for our society,” he wrote.

The very notion of “anti-discrimination” legislation is based on a “faulty footing” because it fails to specify that it’s targeting “unjust” discrimination,” he wrote.

“Clearly, the government’s concern is to address issues where there is unjust discrimination,” he writes.  “These days, the misuse of the word has led to the view that all discrimination is a social evil. When ‘anti-discrimination’ is proposed as a good in itself, then any group which pursues some form of discrimination is viewed as being opposed to the common good of the society.”

It’s “ironic,” he added, that efforts to eliminate discrimination “run the risk of proposing an unjust discrimination against religion.” He also opposed the notion that the Church would be granted an “exemption” from anti-discrimination legislation, saying “it suggests that the Church is in the wrong, but this wrong will be tolerated by the State.”

The state’s Anti-Discrimination Act has been used to prevent Catholic schools from catering to the Catholic community. Under the previous Archbishop, Adrian Doyle, the Church lobbied for the right to give Catholic students priority for admittance to its schools. But in 2012, the legislature voted down a proposal to give the schools a religious exemption.


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