For over three years, two Christian pastors have been involved in answering a complaint made against them by the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) and three Muslim complainants under Victoria’s Racial And Religious Tolerance Act. The pastors’ main offence is that they dared to express disapproval of Islam in a seminar arranged by Catch the Fire Ministries. The Muslims’ complaint went to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT) in October 2003 and was heard for 30 days by Judge Michael Higgins, a Deputy President of VCAT.In December 2004, he found that the two pastors had breached the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act and had vilified Muslims. In June, he imposed a penalty on the pastors. Jenny Stokes, Research Director for Salt Shakers, writes:
The long-awaited penalty against Catch the Fire Ministries (CTFM), Pastor Danny Nalliah and Pastor Daniel Scot was handed down by Judge Higgins on 22 June.
Judge Higgins ordered that the pastors publish a given statement on the CTFM website and in the CTFM newsletter. He also ordered them to place the same notice in The Age and Herald Sun newspapers a total of eight times. The cost of these advertisements is estimated to be nearly $70,000!
The required “statement” summarises the judge’s findings against CTFM. Although the “statement” does not directly “apologise” to the Islamic Council of Victoria for the remarks they made in the seminar on Islam and CTFM articles, media reports have already called it an “apology”.
The judge also gave the pastors 30 days to give an undertaking that they would “not make, publish or distribute in Victoria—or anywhere else in Australia—(including on the internet), whether in writing or orally and whether directly or indirectly, any statements and, or, alternatively, information, suggestions and implications, to the same or similar effect as those found by the Tribunal to have breached the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic)”.
Judge Higgins said that if the pastors do not give such an undertaking, “it will be necessary for further orders to be made” to ensure they comply with his ruling. He made it clear that this could entail an injunction against such conduct. If the pastors do not obey the Tribunal orders they could be given a prison term of up to three months and a possible $7000 fine.
The breadth of this ruling is quite astounding—it requires the pastors not only to refrain from saying the same things again, but also to consider in advance of speaking or writing if their words will have the same effect. Then it goes further, asking the pastors to decide if their words will have a similar effect!
If this injunction is imposed, religious discussion of Islam will be severely censored because not only these pastors but also all people will be hesitant to say anything in case their words are then deemed to vilify Muslims. Many of the statements of Pastor Scot that Judge Higgins found to be vilifying were actually from the Koran and the hadiths—including statements about killing the infidel and about having a hand cut off for stealing.
Christians should be concerned about the wider implications of this decision—about what can and cannot be said about any other religious group, cult, sect, etc, as they are all covered under this legislation. Any criticism of any religious group could be deemed to be vilification, but you will not know until you receive a complaint letter in the mail from the Equal Opportunity Commission. We already have two complaints by witches against Christians, the latest being the complaint against the Alpha course/Salvation Army by witch Robin Fletcher, who is in Ararat prison.
Supporters of both sides attended the hearing, along with many media representatives. It was sad to see once again a representative of the Uniting Church’s Justice and International Mission Unit, a priest from the Catholic Church’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission and a Jewish rabbi supporting the Islamic Council of Victoria and celebrating the judge’s guillotining of free speech.
After the hearing, Pastor Nalliah spoke to the large media contingent about the decision, saying that he could not apologise for the statements and was prepared to go to jail if necessary to defend freedom of speech and religion.
The “remedies” or penalties imposed by Judge Higgins are almost identical to those requested by the Islamic Council at the penalty hearing in May. The statement that Judge Higgins has ordered published by CTFM is almost identical to the one submitted by the ICV.
The Islamic Council claims that the remedies are “very light”, referring to the fact that financial penalties were not asked for in the form of compensation or costs, but this ignores the cost of $70,000 to publish the “apology”.
It is now more than three years since the seminar on Islam was held on 9 March 2002 and more than 18 months since the hearing started at VCAT (October 2003). The case is likely to continue well into the future as an appeal to the Supreme Court against the decision and the penalty is being planned by Catch the Fire Ministries. The cost of this “vilification” trial is already well over a million dollars for all parties so far.
Premier Steve Bracks described Victoria as a “very harmonious society” when he introduced the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in 2001, but this case has created division in society.
At a hearing at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal on 9 August 2005, the barrister for Catch the Fire Ministries told Judge Higgins that Pastors Nalliah and Scot would not follow his penalty ruling. The barrister informed the judge that the pastors “would not apologise or promise not to repeat the statements that led to the complaint” (The Age, 10/8/05).