In Freedom of Speech

My recent brief visit [in February] to London with Pastor Daniel Scot at the invitation of Colin Hart, Director of the UK Christian Institute—to help persuade British MPs and Lords not to support Tony Blair’s bill banning religious hatred—now seems a little unreal, like a dream.

I feed the chooks and do the dishes, and I think: “Was it only a week ago that we were in the British Houses of Parliament, addressing a gathering of distinguished Lords?”

But I have proof—a red-crested paper napkin which I souvenired from the House of Lords dining room where I was served with Earl Grey tea and cucumber sandwiches!

Seriously, though—it was an event which will live in my memory. The meeting on 9 February was chaired by Baroness Caroline Cox. Fourteen other Lords were present, some highly influential, plus about ten others including research assist-ants. This was considerably more than the number at Tony Blair’s Attorney-General’s meeting the day before where he tried to persuade the Lords to back the religious hatred legislation—which has been tacked onto an unrelated bill on serious organised crime and police.

Daniel Scot was the first speaker. He told the Lords of his conviction on 17 December under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. He said (in part):

I am a man who fled for my life from the effects of Islam. I have studied Islamic religious history and its holy books. I am an ordained Christian minister who spoke calmly and reasonably of my concerns about Islam to a Christian group in a Christian church. And in doing so, I have suffered a lengthy and costly legal action and been found guilty of “vilifying Islam”. If it happened to me, it could happen to you.

Having fled for my life because of my Christian faith, I know how precious freedom of speech and religious liberty is. It is too precious to throw away in a misguided attempt to protect religion. An “incitement to religious hatred” offence will damage free speech and stir up religious groups to bring litigation against each other. If my story says anything, it says: “Drop this proposal!”

Mark Mullins, a UK Christian lawyer, told the Lords how the Victorian law against religious vilification compares with the UK bill. Both pieces of legislation state that a person’s intention is irrelevant—thus Daniel Scot could be found guilty of religious hatred, even though he had urged his audience to love Muslims and invite them to meals in their home (that is, he incited love).

Mark Mullins deplored this departure from a basic principle of British justice. He also said that the UK bill would be worse than the Victorian law because the UK penalty is up to seven years imprisonment, and there is no defence for fair comment or conduct with a genuine religious, artistic or scientific purpose.

However this Victorian defence was no help to Daniel Scot. The judge—who apparently had no real understanding of Christian or Islamic theology—decided that Pastor Scot’s religious purpose was not genuine because he did not act “in good faith”.

One prominent Lord stood up and said the Higgins judgement in Victoria appeared to be so flawed that there is no way it could be seen as a precedent for similar cases in Britain.

I pointed out that even if Judge Higgins had dismissed the complaint against Daniel Scot, he would have already paid a very heavy penalty in legal fees, time and stress. Such legislation, in both Victoria and the UK, can be used by religious groups to harass those whose opinions they oppose. I cited the statement by Amir Butler of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, who disagreed with what Daniel Scot said but supported his right to say it, in the best Voltaire tradition. Amir Butler said he had been unnerved in recent times when he was addressing Muslim meetings, to see Christians taking notes of what he said—apparently with the idea of making a religious vilification complaint. He said the Victorian law had not, as the government had claimed,  promoted religious harmony—rather the reverse.

One Lord asked Daniel Scot how the judgement had affected him. Daniel said that Victorian Bible college principals—who used to ask him to give seminars on Islam every year—are no longer inviting him to do so. They are afraid that they too could have complaints lodged against them.

The room fell silent. This point hit home. Anti-vilification legislation affects far more than those who are hauled before the courts. It gags all but a few brave souls.

I told the Lords that the penalty suggested by the Islamic Council of Victoria in a court hearing on 28 January 2005 was potentially horrendous: A court order preventing Daniel Scot from conducting his seminar on Islam ever again, plus further orders suppressing publication of the seminar tapes and transcript as well as the court hearing itself. It would effectively destroy Daniel’s livelihood as well as preventing anyone from finding out exactly what Daniel said that was allegedly so “vilifying”.

Moreover if Daniel were to breach such an order by teaching his seminar—even outside Victoria, since the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act applies to conduct outside as well as inside the state—he could be arrested for being in contempt of court and face a jail sentence.

As the meeting drew to a close, an influential Christian Lord, who had formerly supported the bill, stood up. In a moving speech he said in effect that he had changed his mind as a result of our presentation and now realised the grave dangers of religious hatred legislation. Another Lord later indicated that he too had now decided to oppose the bill.

Then, as the presentation ended, the Lords burst into spontaneous applause. Baroness Cox was amazed. “The Lords do not applaud,” she told us. “I cannot remember when I last heard that happen. They must have been very deeply impressed!” …

The religious hatred section of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill passed the House of Commons on 7 February because the Blair Labour government has such an enormous majority. Nevertheless all Opposition parties united to oppose the religious hatred section by supporting a significant amendment. They were joined by 25 Labour rebels who crossed the floor, while more Labour MPs abstained.

The bill now goes to the House of Lords in March. We pray they will reject the religious hatred section. Although the House of Commons has the power to prevail eventually, we pray that the Blair government will, after reflection, realise the bill’s dangerous implications. We pray too that Victorians will rally in their thousands to back a move to repeal the “religious” section from the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.

At stake is the freedom to speak openly about other religions and our own—to proclaim the words that Jesus said in John 14:6—“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Some people are angered by this exclusive claim. Pakistani professors considered it so offensive, and implicitly insulting to the prophet Mohammed, that they had Daniel Scot charged with blasphemy in 1986 so that he had to flee for his life.

But it is the truth. We need to guard our freedom to proclaim it.

Mrs Roslyn Phillips is Research Officer forFestival of Light Australia.

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