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Religious tolerance will ensure community safety

By Mark Zirnsak - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2005


There has been an active campaign of misinformation run against the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, particularly in Victoria’s religious communities.

The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act  provides a safeguard against a small minority of people who would seek to promote racial or religious hatred in the community. The law allows us to hold opinions or beliefs - even if hateful or destructive - but if we act to promote hatred then we may risk action under the Act.

The Act is in two parts. One that allows for complaints to be made in cases where people believe that others have sought to incite “hatred against”, “serious contempt for”, or “revulsion or severe ridicule of” them on the basis of their race or religion. The other part of the law provides for criminal prosecution of those that “intentionally engage” in activities that seek to incite hatred of a person on the basis of his or her race or religion. There have, to date, been no prosecutions under the second part of the law.

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The law has only dealt with a small number of complaints and deals with around twice as many complaints about incitement to racial hatred as religious hatred. Most complaints are settled through conciliation between the parties involved. Complaints that cannot be resolved by conciliation can go on to be dealt with by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). VCAT hears applications to strike out any complaints that are “frivolous, vexatious, misconceived, lacking in substance” or “an abuse of process”. Under the law, it is possible to critique and criticise any religion, provided you do not do so to incite “hatred against”, “serious contempt for”, or “revulsion or severe ridicule of” others based on their religion. The Act provides exemption to a complaint if your critique or criticism of another faith was done reasonably and in good faith for any genuine religious purpose, any purpose that is in the public interest or in making or publishing a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest.

That discussion and criticism of religion can occur under the Act is evidenced by the fact that you will be able to find books in most public libraries that critique and criticise most religions and religious beliefs. There has not been any attempt to have such books banned under the law.

Obviously, deliberately setting out to read selectively from the religious text of another faith, and misrepresent that faith with the purpose of seeking to incite hatred and hostility against members of that faith, will open a person up to the possibility of complaint under the law. Most people would understand that the use of facts or the “truth” taken selectively or out of context is not an upholding of “truthfulness”, but rather an exercise in manipulation. So whether the selective use of the “truth” is a defence against a complaint will depend on the context in which the selective use of the “truth” occurs and if it was done reasonably and in good faith. However, complaints can only be made about activities that are open to the public and only a person or body that was the target of the incitement is able to make a complaint.

Vilification needs to be seen as an abuse of free speech. There is no absolute “right to free speech” within the Australian constitution, or under Australian law.

Justice Morris of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal recently dealt the misinformation campaign a severe blow when he took the opportunity to dispel a number of myths about the law preventing incitement to racial and religious hatred.

He dismissed a complaint by convicted pedophile and self-proclaimed “witch” Robin Fletcher against the Salvation Army for holding a course teaching Christianity in a prison. In handing down his finding, Justice Morris confirmed a number of things that we have been trying to reassure members of the Christian community of, even while the law was being drafted. Among the things that Justice Morris made clear are:

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  • The law is there to deal with extreme actions - those that inflame “others to hate a person or persons because they adhere to an idea of practice or are of a particular race”;
  • in deciding if a person has been vilified under the law, it does not matter how offended the person that has been allegedly vilified feels;
  • the law recognises that you can hate an idea or religion without hating the people that believe in it;
  • the law allows you to state that your religious beliefs represent the one true religion and all other religious beliefs are false;
  • the law does not prevent criticism of religion or religious practice, unless you cross the line of inciting hatred of the people who believe that religion; and
  • the law does not prevent evangelism.

These have all been key planks in the misinformation campaign run in parts of Victoria’s religious communities. What was worrying about the decision was the complete lack of publicity that it attracted. While the making of the ridiculous complaint by Robin Fletcher was widely publicised, the wise decision to dismiss the complaint and to clarify the law was almost completely ignored.

It is time for the misinformation campaign about the Act to end. This campaign, not the law itself, has made religious communities fearful they may face legal action for proclaiming their faith or discussing other religions. In reality, the law provides a measure of protection for people to stop those that would incite hatred against them on the basis of race or religion. This is a law about community safety. It also provides an avenue to deal with those who would seek to incite hatred that may lead to acts of terrorism.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
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About the Author

Dr Mark Zirnsak is the Director of Justice and International Mission of the Uniting Church.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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