By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com International Editor
June 22, 2005
(CNSNews.com) - Two evangelical pastors in Australia convicted of vilifying Muslims say they will go to prison rather than obey a judge's order to apologize.
A tribunal judge in the state of Victoria on Wednesday instructed Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot to apologize for their comments by publishing a prescribed statement in newspapers and on the website of Nalliah's ministry, Catch the Fire. They would also have to promise never to repeat them -- or any other comments which would have the "same or similar effect" -- anywhere in Australia or on the Internet. Failure to do so would make it "necessary for further orders to be made," said Judge Michael Higgins of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), a body that operates like a normal court of law.
In a landmark ruling last December, Higgins found that the two had vilified Muslims at a seminar on Islam and in articles published in a newsletter and on the Internet. He said Scot, a Pakistan-born pastor who addressed the seminar, had done so "in a way which is essentially hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their god, Allah, the prophet Mohammed and in general Muslim religious beliefs and practices."
The offending statement included the view that the Koran promotes violence and killing; that Muslims lie; and that Muslims intend to take over Australia and declare it an Islamic state.
Higgins also found that an article by Nalliah in a Catch the Fire newsletter contained statements "likely to incite a feeling of hatred towards Muslims," including the claim that Muslim refugees were being granted visas to Australia while Christians who suffer persecution in Islamic nations were refused refugee visas. (Unless there are no examples of such bias then this is typical of all such "attitude laws". Laws on race, religion or sex "discrimination" all tend to outlaw any fair comment, any truth, any argument if the privileged group can in any way be associated with that comment, truth or argument.-ed)
Nalliah and Scot had argued that the intention was to help Christians understand Islam, based on references to the Koran and other Islamic texts. The case against the pastors resulted from a complaint by the state's Islamic Council. It was the first of its kind to be brought under Victoria's (NB Not Australia’s) controversial Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, which came into effect in early 2002.
Shortly after the order was handed down at the VCAT chambers in Melbourne Wednesday, Nalliah told Cybercast News Service that he and Scot would go to prison rather than comply.
"We have from the beginning said this law is a foul law. And it's under the law that the judge has brought the judgment," he said. "Complying with the judge's judgment makes it clear that we respect the law - but we don't respect the law."
Asked whether he really expected that such a stand could land them in prison, Nalliah said they were taking the position because they wanted to see the law abolished. "But the repercussions, as I understand, could result in the judge saying 'you'll have to go into jail for a season because you rejected my judgment.' We are willing to face it if that's the case."
The two have appealed to the Supreme Court.
'Throttling free speech'
The case, which has taken more than 20 months to finalize, has drawn international attention.
In Britain, opponents of a religious hatred bill currently under consideration have cited the Australian episode in their campaign against the legislation.
Although churches in Australia have been divided over the Catch the Fire case, an increasing number are backing a drive to have the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act repealed. Bill Muehlenberg of the Australian Family Association, a leading campaigner against the law, called Wednesday's ruling a sinister turn in a supposedly democratic nation.
"It may not be people bursting into our churches with guns loaded, but the effect is the same," he said in reaction to Higgins' order. "If a secular judge does not like what he hears, he can not only throttle free speech, but can hinder the public proclamation of the gospel as well."
Muehlenberg said Jesus had warned that his followers would be dragged before courts -- "but here we see it being done in the name of civilized virtues: tolerance and the like."
"To offer a Christian critique of other religious views and truth claims can now result in jail sentences. This is a likely outcome as the two pastors will not, on principle, make public apologies." He predicted that the case would separate those who were serious about their faith from those who were not. "This is real wheat versus the chaff type-stuff: who will stand up and be counted, and who will not?"
Jenny Stokes of Salt Shakers, a Christian ethical action group, said from Victoria that the judge's order constituted "a form of appeasement." "The prohibition on speaking or conduct that would have the 'same or similar effect' to the statements found by Judge Higgins to have breached the act and vilified Muslims is very far-reaching -- especially since many of those statements are from the Koran itself," she said.
The Nalliah-Scot case is not the only one to have highlighted difficulties with the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. A convicted pedophile and self-described "witch" recently brought a case against prison authorities and the Salvation Army, complaining that a Christian course being offered to inmates at his penitentiary had vilified him by carrying derogatory references to witchcraft. The complaint is pending.
Earlier, another "witch" accused a Christian city councilor of vilifying her in a public statement he released voicing concern about satanist activity. The case ended up before the VCAT, but ended with a settlement that required the councilor to apologize publicly.
In a boost for those campaigning against the Victorian law, the premier of the neighboring state of New South Wales (NSW) - which is also under a Labor government - spoke out Monday against a lawmaker's attempt to pass similar legislation in NSW. "Religious vilification laws are difficult because ... determining what is or is not a religious belief is difficult," Premier Bob Carr told state parliament. "It is subjective."
"Religious vilification laws can undermine the very freedom they seek to protect -- freedom of thought, conscience and belief," he said.
In a separate move, a federal lawmaker Monday introduced a private member's bill in Canberra that seeks to have Australia's federal parliament declare Victoria's religious hate law to be unnecessary. Most opponents of the laws say that while they are well-intended, they are also superfluous as existing defamation and racial discrimination laws provide adequate protection.
Pointing to the Nalliah-Scot case outcome, Muehlenberg has also argued that secular judges are not competent to rule in complex theological disputes.