Calls Mount for Australian State to Rescind Religious Hatred Law

Victoria, Australia - A campaign to dump a religious hatred law in Australia is winning growing support from churches -- including some whose opinion on the law has shifted since two Christians were found guilty of vilifying Muslims.

Mainstream church leaders are adding their voices to other Christians asking the State of Victoria's Labor government to rescind the legislation, saying it poses a danger to freedom of speech.

Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act made headlines around the world after Muslims took two pastors before a tribunal, complaining about a post-9/11 seminar designed to explain Islam to a Christian audience.

The case made waves in Britain, where the government has been trying to enact a similar proposal (see related story).

Since the judgment went against them last December, pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot have been awaiting the tribunal judge's decision as to what penalties they will face.

A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for early May, and the two are also planning to appeal the verdict.

The case against the pair was the first to be brought under the law, which was promulgated by the Victorian government despite concerns raised by Christian groups that it could stifle evangelism or end the right to question the validity of other faiths.

The law passed and took effect in January 2002. Just two months later, Nalliah's Catch the Fire Ministries hosted the seminar. Muslims attending the meeting filed a complaint which after a drawn-out process culminated in December's judgment.

Nalliah and Scot argued that the intention was to help Christians reach out in a loving way to Muslims, and to understand the religion through references to its own scriptures and other writings.

But the tribunal judge, Michael Higgins, ruled against the two, saying the seminar "was presented in a way which is essentially hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their god, Allah, the prophet Mohammed and in general religious beliefs and practices."

While not necessarily defending what was said at the Catch the Fire seminar, church leaders in Victoria are now asking the state government to intervene, and hope to meet with state Premier Steve Bracks within days.

For the Presbyterian Church the outcome of the Catch the Fire case raised two important issues.

"First, are judges now required to make theological judgments under the Act and just how well qualified are they to do so?" moderator Allan Harman said in a statement.

"Secondly, and more specifically, are we to assume that Christians quoting and commenting on Islamic texts in ways the Muslims object to, will be penalized? This ability to critique another person's position is integral to a free and democratic society."

Both the Presbyterian and Anglican (Episcopalian) churches argue that the legislation has mixed up questions of religious and racial hatred.

"It was a great mistake for the government to lump religious vilification in with racial

vilification," Harman said. "Apart from a very few small groupings such as Jews and Sikhs, race and religion in the modern world are not the same thing. Race for any person is a given, not so religion."

He said both Islam and Christianity were missionary religions, and Muslims and Christians alike should have the liberty to make disciples in Australia.

Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Watson said in an article in the diocesan newspaper that his denomination had not examined the free speech issue closely enough when the law was being drafted.

While race was an identifying factor, "religion is a matter for discussion, debate and choice."

"Not everything that is offensive or upsetting to us should be outlawed," Watson said.

What constitutes offense?

During the Catch the Fire hearings, two other denominations, the Catholic and Uniting Churches, supported the Muslim complainants, although the tribunal rejected submissions made by the two. An Anglican priest also appeared as an expert witness on behalf of the Muslims.

In response to "many queries" by Catholics and others about the intervention, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne's Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission released a statement last week saying it had become involved because it believed Muslims in Victoria had indeed been vilified by Catch the Fire.

"The intention of the Catholic intervention into the case was to show the respect the Catholic Church has towards Islam," it added.

The commission said it had not taken a position regarding the legislation itself.

"However, we do believe that the objectives of the law are worthy, and that the sort of activities and speech that is barred by the law are not the sort of activity or speech in which Christians should be involved."

Nonetheless, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart is now also reported to have come out against the law.

Hart is "one of a number of church leaders to join forces to urge the state government to fix the law," according to a report Thursday by Cathnews, an Australian Catholic news service.

Other Christian institutions wanting the law repealed or amended include the Australian Christian Lobby, which is spearheading the campaign, a Victorian ethical action group Salt Shakers, the Evangelical Alliance, and the Australian Family Association (AFA).

Among numerous complaints about the law - both at its drafting and since - critics said a listener could be offended whether or not the person giving the offense intended to do so. Yet claiming that one did not intend to insult or vilify was not a defense under the legislation.

"By its very nature, a religious truth claim will always seem offensive to one who does not accept it," Bill Muehlenberg of the AFA wrote in a recent article on the subject.

"No matter how hard I may try not to offend, an atheist will take offence at my claims that he is wrong and that God exists," he said. "A Muslim will take offence when I claim that Christ died on the cross and rose again."