It looks like Australia has a similar situation to Germany and many of our other allies when it comes to laws against criticizing religions, at least in one province. Victoria has something called the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act that prohibits “inciting hatred against a person or class of persons”, and that act has been used to prosecute two Christian ministers who criticized Islam at a seminar a couple years ago.
In December 2004, VCAT judge Michael Higgins ruled that Nalliah and Scot had incited “hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of” Muslims, both at the seminar and in articles published in a Catch the Fire newsletter and on the Internet.
Scot’s address to the seminar, he said, was “essentially hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their god, Allah, the prophet Mohammed and in general Muslim religious beliefs and practices.”
And an article by Nalliah in his ministry’s newsletter had included statements “likely to incite a feeling of hatred towards Muslims,” the judge said.
In June 2005, Higgins ordered that the two apologize by publishing a prescribed statement in newspapers and on the Catch the Fire website.
They were also instructed to pledge never to repeat the comments which he deemed offensive — or any other comments that would have same effect — anywhere in Australia or on the Internet.
Higgins said if they did not comply, “further orders” would be made.
The court ordered them to take out ads in newspapers costing nearly $70,000 to issue a public apology. That decision is now under appeal and arguments were heard this week by the Victoria Court of Appeal. Said their attorney:
Mr Macaulay said orders by Judge Michael Higgins against the pastors to take out a newspaper advertisement apologising and not to repeat certain teachings were too wide, and beyond his powers under the act.
He said it was surprising that the pastors could hold the beliefs but not express them. “They are restrained by law from suggesting or implying a number of things about what in their view the Koran teaches: that it preaches violence and killing, that women are of little value, that the God of Islam, Allah, is not merciful, that there is a practice of ‘silent jihad’ for spreading Islam, or that the Koran says Allah will remit the sins of martyrs.
You can view the defendants’ reply brief to the court here. It includes much of the substance of their criticisms of Islam, which I think anyone will agree are not the least bit beyond the pale (one can agree or disagree with them, of course, but they are pretty much standard religious criticism). The reply brief also makes an extremely important point about the difference between racial and religious tolerance. Religions are belief systems and belief systems must be open to analysis and criticism, whereas race does not imply any set of ideas.
This is extremely dangerous legislation and it is becoming more and more popular among our Western allies. It is one thing to prohibit someone from encouraging the murder of an individual or a group; it is quite another to argue, as the government of Victoria did in this case, that you cannot criticize a religion without vilifying its adherents. No government has the legitimate authority to rule on such matters. There is no way to coherently and consistently apply such a law without banning all criticism of anyone’s religion. The flipside of having the freedom to practice one’s religion and express it openly is that others also get to criticize your beliefs – and yes, even criticize you for holding them.