A Victorian judge has reassured Americans that the Christian respondents in the state’s first religious hate case do not face jail.
Judge Michael Higgins told a tribunal yesterday he had received a call from the Department of Foreign Affairs over concerns about the case raised in a “considerable” number of emails from Americans.
Both sides in the case, the first brought under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, say it has attracted interest in Muslim countries as well as in the West.
The Islamic Council of Victoria has alleged that Catch the Fire Ministries, Pastor Danny Nalliah and speaker Daniel Scot had vilified Muslims at a Melbourne seminar last year.
Judge Higgins, in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, said that Foreign Affairs had rung him after being contacted by the US embassy. “They were concerned about emails forwarded to the US asserting that these proceedings are ones in which individuals could be subject to terms of imprisonment. I indicated that this is not so, that these are civil proceedings, and imprisonment will play no part.”
Later, Islamic Council barrister Brind Woinarski, QC, said the jail threat had been clearly promulgated on Catch the Fire’s website.
Judge Higgins said he was not concerned about who was responsible. While the act provides for up to six months’ jail, that would not apply in this case.
“I’ve done all I think is necessary to allay those fears,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned that’s the end of it.”
A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said it was not the US embassy but the Australian embassy in Washington that had been flooded with emails. The embassy asked for some words to help in replying to them, hence the contact with the judge.
Mr Nalliah, speaking outside the tribunal, said Catch the Fire was not behind any email campaign, but acknowledged that the case was news abroad. American television networks had contacted him, the Washington Post had sought an interview, and Christian human rights groups had sent out news releases asking people to pray.
Islamic Council president Yasser Soliman suggested that the Pakistani and Saudi Arabian governments were also following the case. He told The Age: “The interest is not just in the Western world.”
Mr Nalliah said he helped the United States frame its international freedom from religious persecution legislation in 1998, advising the State Department and congressmen.
The State Department has an Office of International Religious Freedom, with an ambassador at large. Mr Nalliah said it got “a tremendous response… We’ve had Christians released in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Vietnam and China”.
Yesterday, Muslim convert Jan Jackson gave evidence that she had been asked to attend the seminar in question by a concerned Muslim friend who worked for the Equal Opportunity Commission.
Replying to an objection, Judge Higgins said it could be said that the worker arranged for Ms Jackson to be there and it could be said that their view of what was incitement was coloured.
Judge Higgins said it was appropriate to indicate his thinking at this point, nine days into the hearing.
He said that when he first read the transcript of the seminar he thought the first part breached the act, but as he read on he had doubts.
“The speaker talks about concern for Muslims, the need to create a dialogue with Muslims, he talks about the need develop relationships with them, mixing socially etc.
“Is the document as a whole an incitement to hatred as set out in (the act)?
“If you stop at page 67 it’s pretty easy to say yes, but when you go through the rest, then I think the first view you might adopt starts to wane somewhat,” the judge said.
The new law explained
Name of the Act: Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, 2001
Penalties: Under the act, individuals can be fined up to $6000 and companies $30,000. Criminal charges can result in six months jail.
Under the legislation there are civil and criminal sanction for racial and religious vilification. The civil provisions apply to conduct that promotes vilification on the basis of race or religion and involves a conciliation process through the Equal Opportunity Commission. People will be informed of their options including the option of discussing the matter with police. The final decision about whether to pursue the matter as a civil or criminal matter rests with the person making the complaint.
Definition: Serious racial vilification
A person (the offender) must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, intentionally engage in conduct that the offender knows is likely-
(a) to incite hatred against that other person or class of persons; and
(b) to threaten, or incite others to threaten, physical harm towards that other person or class of persons or the property of that other person or class of persons.
Exemptions: The act includes exceptions for conduct or discussion that is engaged in reasonably and in good faith in relation to:
an artistic work or performance;
a statement, publication, discussion or debate for any genuine academic, artistic, religious or scientific purpose or which may be considered in the public interest; and
a fair or accurate report on a matter of public interest.
Guidelines of banned behaviour:
Examples of behaviour that may be covered by the new Act include:
Writing racist graffiti in public places;
Making racist speeches at a public rally;
Displaying racist posters or stickers in a public place;
Vilifying racist or religious abuse in a public place; and
Offensive racist comments in a publication, including Internet and e-mail.