It seemed good to me, having followed all things related to the now notorious Victorian religious vilification case closely for some time past, to write an orderly account of the dispute.
The course of the dispute
On March 9, 2002, Daniel Scot, an expert on the teaching of the Koran and Hadith (collections of the sayings of Mohammed) and some years earlier forced to flee Pakistan on account of facing the death penalty under that country’s then newly enacted blasphemy laws, spoke at a seminar organised by Pastor Danny Nalliah of Catch the Fire Ministries (CTFM).
Three topics were covered in the seminar: “Jihad from the Koran”, “The Koran and the Bible” and “Witnessing to Muslims”.
The seminar was held just two months after the Victorian Government’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act became law. The key clause (clause 8) in this law with respect to religious vilification states, “A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons”.
The Act includes an exception clause whereby it is open to the person accused to establish that their conduct “was engaged in reasonably and in good faith in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held, or any other conduct engaged in, for any genuine religious purpose”.
Unbeknown to the organisers of the seminar, a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), working with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) at the time for the express purpose of ensuring people from Arabic and Muslim communities were made aware of their rights under anti-discrimination laws, encouraged several recent converts to Islam to attend the seminar.
A complaint was subsequently lodged by the ICV and the converts against CTFM and the two pastors.
Conciliation failed in the EOC. The case was then taken by the ICV to the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal (VCAT, “the tribunal”), where after failed mediation a hearing was set before the Deputy President of VCAT, Judge Michael Higgins. The hearing extended over many days from October 15, 2003 to March 29, 2004, with Judge Higgins releasing a “Summary of Reasons for Decision” on December 17, 2004 in which he found heavily against the two pastors, and a week later released his 140-page “Reasons for Decision”.
A further six months elapsed before Judge Higgins made orders for remedy on the June 22, 2005. These involved a public apology by the two pastors in the form of large advertisements over two consecutive weeks, in The Age and Herald Sun acknowledging their vilification of “all Muslim people, their God, their prophet Mohammed and in general Muslim beliefs and practices”. The advertisement would also say “that Pastor Scot was not a credible witness and that he had not acted reasonably and in good faith”.
This prompted a renewed round of opposition to the law by advocacy groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) which co-ordinated a group of churchmen and lawyers to approach the Victorian Government seeking the repeal of the Act, or failing that, significant amendment.
Eventually with the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, taking the lead through its Moderator, Dr Harman, a group of senior church leaders drawn across the Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox divide presented their proposals to the government. The government response was to expand the religious exception clause to include “teaching, conveying and proselytising of a religion”.
Following Judge Higgins’ orders for remedy, the two pastors appealed to the Supreme Court of Victoria. The appeal was heard by a panel of three judges sitting as a Court of Appeal on August 21 and 22, 2006. On December 14 in their judgment, the three judges unanimously upheld the appeal against the tribunal’s decision, effectively unravelling that finding and the basis on which it was constructed.