The Destiny Church rally at Parliament against the Civil Union Bill this week conjured up deeply uncomfortable memories and implications for some spectators, writes The Press in an editorial.
Most of the participants were clad in uniform black T-shirts or suits, they marched in highly disciplined ranks, they chanted slogans and punched the air with their fists. The whole performance had the air of an intimidatory ritual. To some onlookers it all had a horrible resemblance to Nazi rallies in pre-war Germany. A more relevant and more modern possible model is the radical Black Muslim movement in the United States, which has many of the same attributes, down to the stony-faced, ear-piece-wearing “bodyguards” in heavy sunglasses. Either way, the posturing and symbolism are distasteful to most New Zealanders.
But we should not get too carried away with analogies. The Destiny Church has been around for some time now. It is led by a fluent, ardent young man, always well turned out in natty suitings, with a preaching style that borrows heavily from the holy-roller, hot-gospelling style of evangelists from the deep south of the United States, most often seen here on early-morning television. The Destiny Church itself is best known to many of its members through the television broadcasts it pays to make in the insomniac hours after midnight. Its uncompromising style with a conservative bent appeals to those for whom the milk-and-water liberalism of the mainstream churches, Protestant or Catholic, no longer has any attraction.
The smart young leader of the church has managed to raise its profile by latching on to the Civil Union Bill, a measure that causes deep unease among many more than just social conservatives. The rally on Monday fell short of the 20,000 the church had hoped to attract, but it was still a respectable 7500, to make it one of the largest seen in Parliament’s grounds in recent years. The imagery the black-clad crowd evoked, which one way or another was surely not unintentional, has prompted some critics to suggest that the march should have been banned. Others have asserted that the message the church brought was anti-homosexual and that its declaration of those views should be suppresssed in deference to the feelings of homosexuals and their supporters.
Any such curbs on freedom of speech must be resisted. To succumb to the temptation to ban and proscribe would be a development far more objectionable than anything this fringe group could ever bring about.
Open debate, often among people with fiercely opposing opinions, is the essence of democracy. At the heart of the system is the belief that it is by rivalrous contention in the marketplace of ideas that, more often than not, the best solutions to problems emerge. Vigorous, candid discussion, however uncomfortable it may sometimes be, will ultimately be more beneficial than suppression on some pretext or other. By allowing the Destiny Church to have its march people were able to see and judge for themselves the merits or otherwise of what it was trying to say.
Some were inclined to see in the church’s stand on the Civil Union Bill a message of hate directed at homosexuals. That was not justified by anything the marchers said or did on Monday. But the Government has already suggested that it may have to legislate against what is known as “hate speech”. The suggestion that what Destiny engaged in on Monday amounted to this points up a danger if moves to legislate against it come to pass. “Hate speech” would be almost impossible to define and could open the doors to the complaints of just about anyone who could contrive a grievance, presumably on the ground that their feelings had been hurt. It is far too inadequate a basis on which to curtail an element as central to democracy as free speech.
New Zealand already has a considerable body of law that place curbs on what may be said in public. The laws governing defamation, privacy, race relations and others already infringe, sometimes with good reason, on complete freedom of speech. Other overt acts of discrimination are also forbidden on a wide range of grounds. Incitement or encouragement of crimes of violence are similarly against the law.
For now, the Destiny Church’s opposition to the Civil Union Bill has done wonders for its public notoriety but it must not be allowed to muddy the debate about what is a potentially far-reaching piece of social legislation. It must be openly and honestly debated – without the fudging the Government has so far indulged in. The comic-opera buffoonery of the Destiny Church must not be allowed to distract us from that.