Hatred law needs overhaul: churches

Worried about curbs on free speech, religious leaders will push Premier Steve Bracks for change.

Victoria’s church leaders will tell Premier Steve Bracks it is time to change the controversial religious hatred law.

All agree it is unsatisfactory, but they differ on what needs changing.

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The leaders of the main denominations discussed the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act last week, and were due to meet Mr Bracks today. But the meeting was postponed until next week because of today’s funeral of former governor Davis McCaughey.

Anglican Archbishop Peter Watson has said the church did not look closely enough at the legislation when it was framed in 2001, and it did not want “the law of the land intruding into places where it has no proper role”.

Writing in the diocesan newspaper, Archbishop Watson said churches should have examined more closely whether the act was an unnecessary curb on free speech.

The judgement in December that a conservative Christian group, Catch The Fire, had vilified Muslims under the act brought the question into sharper focus. The Catholic and Uniting churches supported Muslims against Catch the Fire.

“Race is such an identifying thing… Religion is about belief and behaviour, and we may change them,” Archbishop Watson said. “Religion is a matter for discussion, debate and choice.”

He said Christians in Australia were used to ridicule and criticism, which could be healthy. Some faiths, less used to liberal society, might find comments about their faith offensive.

“Not everything that is offensive or upsetting to us should be outlawed,” he said.

Presbyterian moderator Allan Harman, who with Archbishop Watson has led the opposition, said yesterday: “Our attitude is against the bill altogether. It mixes racial and religious vilification, and they are not the same.”

Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart said the act tended to blur race and religion. “The nuancing isn’t there. We want to allow robust dialogue by adherents of particular religions, but not in a way that gathers up race or is unjust or stereotypes,” he said.

Uniting Church moderator Sue Gormann said that by the end of their meeting the state heads of churches were in agreement. “We agreed… to look at whether this legislation is doing its job. It’s clear that in some cases it may not be,” she said.

“The point is not to stop freedom of speech but to ensure safety. We are open to amendments.”

Maureen Postma, secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches, said some churches were against the legislation and others were less convinced. “Not too many of those jumping up and down are actually involved in interfaith dialogue,” she said.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Age, Australia
Mar. 31, 2005
Barney Swartz, Religion Editor
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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 31, 2005.
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