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Freedom of speech under threat

by Charles Francis, AM, QC, RFD

News Weekly, March 17, 2007

Much injustice in Australia has occurred in the name of equal opportunity legislation, argues Charles Francis QC. Many Christian churches, ministers and priests, who in the past have supported such laws, now regret having done so.

Those Australians who believe in political correctness and their right to stifle philosophies which conflict with it may well consider that in the first decade of the 21st century their golden era has begun.

A number of Australian states have enacted religious vilification legislation and the South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson has proposed an amendment to his state's Equal Opportunity Act to prevent any "victimisation" of a person on the basis, inter alia, of marital status, pregnancy choices or homosexual behaviour.

In the light of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in the Islamic Council of Victoria v. Catch the Fire Ministries case, it is clear that in the discussion of such issues truth is not necessarily a defence.

Serious inhibitions

The proposed South Australian legislation may, it seems to me, create serious inhibitions in relation to the teaching of some of those eternal Christian truths originally proclaimed by the Church in the first century AD. Those truths were later crystallised in the first Vulgate Bible translated by St Jerome at the beginning of the fifth century and which, after his death in 420 AD, was accepted by the Christian Church as the inspired Book of Scripture.

There have been other subsequent great translations of the Bible, in particular the King James Version in 1611, but these fundamental truths have never changed. They have, for example, been recently repeated in 1994 in the Australian and New Zealand edition of the Roman Catholic Catechism.

Amongst these truths I cite the following:

(i) that adultery is wrong and sinful;

(ii) that sexual intercourse outside marriage as, for example, in a de facto relationship, is wrong and sinful; and

(iii) that homosexual acts are wrong and sinful.

It seems to me that prima facie the making of any of these three statements (or like statements) could constitute victimisation under the proposed South Australian Equal Opportunity (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill 2006.

It is not sufficient to say that the maker of the statement could claim to fall within certain exclusions or exemptions within the Bill and could so escape liability. Anyone who thinks he is adequately protected by exemptions or exclusions is deceiving himself.

Unmeritorious proceedings can involve an innocent person in long, costly and stressful litigation. He may be brought up before a Commissioner whose philosophy is entirely different from his own and who might, for example, find (quite unjustly) that what was done was not done in good faith, was not reasonable and was not done in the public interest. An ultimate victory, if achieved, could be achieved at enormous cost.

Any ministers, priests or religious bodies minded to lend their support to this legislation would do well to study carefully the history of the case of the Islamic Council of Victoria v. Catch the Fire Ministries.

The Victorian legislation, which enabled two Christian pastors, Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot, to be subjected to what amounted to gross persecution for expressing what was in essence a Christian viewpoint, was legislation which was originally supported by a number of Christian churches, ministers and priests, most of whom have subsequently realised their folly.

The general public assumes that the law is just, but we are moving into a new era where grave injustices are being sought to be rendered lawful by Acts of Parliament. These injustices may be further heightened by the appointment of Chairmen of Tribunals who are neither learned nor independent, but are chosen to enforce a particular philosophy.

Bad law

Freedom of speech is a priceless asset within a democracy, but we are now being governed by people who no longer value that freedom and who want their own philosophies to govern our lives. No matter how many exclusions or exemptions are contained within the proposed Bill, it is bad law and should be opposed. Judges and administrative tribunals are not qualified to determine religious or theological matters and the State has no business encroaching into matters of religious belief and values.

We, in Australia, have now lived with equal opportunity legislation for three decades. Much injustice has occurred in the name of equal opportunity and, on balance, we may have been far better off without any such legislation at all.

- Charles Francis, AM QC RFD, is a retired Melbourne lawyer and former Victorian MP.

George Orwell


"If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." - George Orwell (1903-1950), from the original "suppressed" preface to his novel, Animal Farm (1945).


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