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Why Costello is wrong: vilification laws send a strong message

By Gary Bouma - posted Wednesday, 9 June 2004

Peter Costello argued in his Thanksgiving Day address that we should not "resolve differences about religious views in our community with lawsuits between the different religions". However, it has been a long-standing Australian and Judeo-Christian tradition to take religious issues to the courts for settlement.

The issue he referred to was not a difference about religious views but occasions when one religious group uses negative stereotypic and inaccurate language to describe another group. Costello simply does not seem to understand the need for religious groups to behave honestly and honourably in their relations with each other.

Victoria introduced religious anti-vilification legislation in 2001 to promote harmony in inter-faith relations. Before this, religious groups feeling they had been vilified had no recourse to law unless they could approach the courts as an ethnic group. This approach was made available to Jews who were determined to be at once both a religion and an ethnic group. However, when Muslims made a similar approach in 2002 (the Islamic Council of Victoria versus the ABC) they were denied because they did not constitute an ethnic group, but only a religious one.


In the bad old days of Australian sectarian rivalry there was a great deal of religious vilification. Some of it was perpetrated by priests and ministers of Christian churches. Some religious people continue to feel it necessary to speak ill of those who believe or practise differently. Doing this does not speak to me of religious maturity but insecurity. Some vilification is simply loutish. Whatever the source, it is injurious to others and to the quality of life in Australia.

However, to attribute to a whole group the characteristics of a few members of a religious group, or sentiments held elsewhere, or practices occasionally found elsewhere, is to engage in stereotypic thinking.

When these attributions are negative and cause Australians to become fearful of their neighbours on account of their religion, then vilification is occurring and our social fabric torn.

All societies regulate inter-group relations formally and informally. We have expectations about what is fair, reasonable and permissible. These expectations change over time. In the last century there were a number of efforts to change such expectations. One tool in making these changes is legislation. So we enacted and enforced civil-rights legislation, anti-discrimination legislation and anti-sexual harassment legislation. I think our society is a better place for all as a result of these changes.

Costello seems to argue that we do not need religious anti-vilification legislation because polite societies based on Christian values do not engage in this sort of thing and law is a rough tool for promoting good behaviour. This old chestnut is trotted out every time legislation of this sort is proposed. Change the hearts of the citizenry, rely on good common sense, point to good examples, and right will prevail. Perhaps. But the evidence points the other way.

Make a certain type of behaviour illegal and a powerful message is sent to those who might be wavering, to those who consider a little anti-Semitism a part of polite conversation, or to those who think it permissible to make disparaging comments about someone who dresses differently on account of their religion. Sexist language is heard much less often now, even in all-male company of those over 50. Why? Because the social cost of engaging in it has been made punishing. The tools making this change were legislation and regulations put in place to change corporate cultures. State legislation came first.


Our sister society, Ontario in Canada, takes these matters so seriously as to make religious vilification a criminal offence. Last year a person was charged, convicted and sentenced to "concurrent conditional three-month sentences ... followed by two years' probation". This conviction and sentence was upheld in two appeals.

In cases of religious vilification, the core issue is public order and the restraint of such speech as might cause inter-group conflict and violence. The main aim is to protect the right of religious groups to exist and to pursue their business without undue harassment from others and to make less likely prejudicial and stereotypic thinking that would lead some Australians to be fearful of other Australians on the basis of their religion.

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This article was first published in The Age on 1 June 2004.

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About the Author

Gary Bouma is Professor of Sociology at Monash University, associate priest of St Dunstan's Anglican Church, Camberwell, and vice-chairman of The World Conference of Religions for Peace, Australia. He appeared as a witness for the Islamic Council of Victoria in their case against Catch The Fire Ministries.

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