Witch's Complaint Renews Focus on Religious Hatred Law

Victoria, Australia - A self-described witch serving a jail term for child-sex abuse has become the latest person to use Australia's controversial religious hatred law to complain that he is being vilified on the basis of religion.

The new complaint will draw further attention to a law in the state of Victoria that has sparked concern around the world about restrictions on freedom of religious expression.

In the first case to be brought under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, two Christian pastors were found guilty last December of vilifying Muslims. They have now applied for a judicial review of the decision, accusing the judge of displaying \ldblquote irredeemable bias" against them.

As more and more Australian churches join calls for the law to be scrapped, convicted pedophile Robin Fletcher has lodged a new application with state authorities, and last Thursday, a body called the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) held a "directions hearing" on the case.

Fletcher says that a course on the basics of Christianity, being held at the prison where he in incarcerated, poses a danger to his health and safety because of its references to witchcraft.

He has brought his complaint against the state's prison authorities; the Salvation Army, whose chaplains are running the course at the Ararat penitentiary; and a Christian distribution and marketing company that produces the course materials.

The program at the center of the complaint is Alpha, used in tens of thousands of churches, prisons, military bases, colleges and other facilities around the world to introduce the basics of the Christian faith.

In his complaint, Fletcher said the Alpha course should be discontinued at Ararat "because it constitutes a personal danger to my health and safety within the prison system."

He charged that the program violated state law and should be stopped "until suitable modifications can be made to bring it into conformity with the law in Victoria."

Attempts to get comment from Corrections Victoria were unsuccessful. Salvation Army representative John Dalziel told Cybercast News Service the organization "supports the spirit" of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act."

"We do not think we have contravened the act, and we believe that the matter does not warrant the involvement of VCAT," he said.

A spokesman for VCAT confirmed that Fletcher's complaints came up before the tribunal's deputy president, Anne Coghlan, on Thursday for a "directions hearing" -- when parties are given directions and timetables are set for filing of documentation and responses.

VCAT tries to refer cases for mediation early on, but some go through a full hearing process, similar to a trial, with lawyers representing the parties, witnesses testifying, and so on.

If a complaint is found to be valid, the tribunal judge can order respondents to pay compensation, apologize or take other actions, and they can order respondents to stop committing further acts deemed to be discriminatory against the complainant.


"We warned before the law was passed that this law would unleash an avalanche of - mainly unjustified and ridiculous -- charges of vilification against Christians," Bill Muehlenberg of the Australian Family Association, a leading critic of the legislation, said Monday.

"The most recent, concerning the Alpha course, is just the latest, and perhaps most bizarre."

Muehlenberg said supporters of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, who had dismissed the concerns, had been "proven wrong, big time."

"Anybody for any reason can claim to be offended, and the burden of proof is on the party charged -- so far, all Christians -- to prove they are innocent.

"Not only is this a fundamental breach of the rule of law ... but a clear example of how those opposed to the Christian faith are using this law to silence believers of all stripes."

Meanwhile, two pastors who defended the first religious vilification case brought before the tribunal have filed an application asking for the state's Supreme Court to review the VCAT decision in their case.

Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah were accused of vilifying Muslims at a seminar organized to explain elements of Islam to a Christian audience in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. The complaint was brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria and individual Muslims who had attended the event.

At the culmination of a case that lasted more than two years, a VCAT judge ruled last December that 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."

The pastors have yet to be instructed on what penalties they will face.

Muehlenberg said critics of the law had said all along that it was against freedom of speech and a direct assault on the Christian faith.

"Yesterday it was two pastors speaking on Islam. Today it is the Alpha course. What tomorrow? Sunday school teachers telling children, 'yes Jesus loves you'? Surely someone will find that offensive. The truth is, nothing is safe within Christendom with this law in place."

"This is bad law and must be changed."

The Australian law played a part in a campaign in Britain against similar legislation under consideration there.

Critics in Britain said the Scot-Nalliah case showed the dangers of legislation that could be abused to prevent people from questioning the claims of other religions.

Although the Labor government failed to get the contentious proposal passed before parliament dissolved ahead of an election next month, it's expected to reintroduce it should it form the next government, as widely predicted.

'Disciples, slaves wanted'

Fletcher, the complainant in the new case, was jailed in 1998 for sexually assaulting two 15-year-old girls, drugging them and pushing them into prostitution, and using the Internet to advertise their services.

At his trial, the judge accused the then 42-year-old self-described witch of using his religion as "a cloak for the sexual exploitation of children," according to media reports published at the time.

The court heard evidence of mind-altering drugs, sado-masochism and other abuses. The accused claimed that one of the girls was the reincarnation of a Celtic priestess while the other was her hand-maiden.

The prosecution also argued that Fletcher had tried to have the girls murdered after his arrest to prevent them from testifying against him, although that charge was not accepted by the court.

Jailed for 10 years, it later emerged that the prison inmate was advertising on the Internet site for "disciples, slaves, friends who are truly dedicated and interested in long-term relationship and in dedicating themselves to me and to the dark path."

In an entry on a prison pen-pal website, Fletcher urges anyone interested to write to him.

Describing himself as "bisexual and non-monogamous," he claims to be in prison "for following the legal rites of a legal religion."