What if a religion should be vilified?
The Age [ Australia ]
By JAMES GUEST
Tuesday 24 April 2001
All who admire the lead that Jews have given in sticking up for underdogs
over the past 50 years will be disappointed by the low-grade arguments
deployed by the executive director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation
Commission, Danny Ben-Moshe, to support the Bracks Government's proposed
Racial and Religious Tolerance Bill ("Racist slurs will continue while
they are legal", on this page last Wednesday).
Ben-Moshe insouciantly side-steps the problem that buried the bill 10
years ago when it was first proposed. He highlights that problem when he
says that "racial vilification involves targeting someone purely because
of their race or religion".
Race equals religion? Really?
A mere slip, you'd think, but maybe he just wants to show how dumb he
thinks his readers are. That would be why he gives pride of place to this
remarkable reason for Victoria to legislate: "...outside of New South
Wales, Victoria received the greatest number of racially based complaints
under the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act". Gee whiz, there were
most complaints in the biggest state and the second most in the
Racial vilification shouldn't be trivialised. People don't choose their
race, and it has nothing to do with their beliefs or morals, good, bad or
Vilifying people for their religion has had a bad history too. But there
is this big difference: some "religions" deserve to be vilified.
The proposed bill doesn't define religion. Anything goes. In the 1983
Scientologists' tax case, the High Court made clear it wasn't going to
provide a restrictive definition of "religion" if parliament failed to.
So the All-American TV Church of Fornicators and Tax Avoiders Inc, if it
can recruit a few loopy believers, may haul you before some "reasonable"
worthies and litigate you into bankruptcy if you tell it how you see it.
The proposed legislation would stop you calling a bunch of crooks "a bunch
A little attention to recent history might have helped. In the mid-1960s
Mr Justice Anderson's inquiry took a long look at L. Ron Hubbard's
business enterprise, once Dianetics but by then Scientology, and found it
to be so noxious that the Victorian Parliament passed the Psychological
Practices Act to deal with it. It then became the Church of Scientology,
or the Church of the New Faith, and got its tax exemption.
Maybe it has metamorphosed like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons into
something harmless and spiritual. Maybe not.
And what about the wackos of Waco and the poisoned multitude in Guyana?
While we wait on the government's next draft of the bill, we have to rely
on its stated intention "that the legislation will make it unlawful for a
person to engage in conduct which is reasonably likely to offend ... a
person or group of persons on the ground(s) of ... religion. This would
include inciting or expressing ... serious contempt for, or severe
ridicule of, a person or group of persons on the basis of their ...
The test is to be "objective", which puts the finding that a crime has
been committed into the hands of whoever is empowered to decide what a
"reasonable observer" would think of the alleged vilification. There is
some scope there for generation gaps, and ethnic ones too in our
Anguished parents of a child attracted to a religious sect might find
little comfort in the assurance that they can be let off if their
offensive statements are held to have been made "reasonably for any
genuine purpose in the public interest".
One final oddity. If I say Alan Bond is a crook and he sues me, I can
plead truth or fair comment as a defence. Under the "tolerance" bill,
there is no such defence for a nurse who has seen a Jehovah's Witness'
child die for want of a blood transfusion if, in anguish, the nurse calls
their church a bunch of murderers.
Intemperate language? True enough, but "murder" comes readily enough to
the tongues and pens of clerics who oppose abortion. That is equally
inaccurate, and offensive to many. But a crime? Really?
As my unjustly derided Irish ancestor put it: "I wouldn't be starting from
here." Equating race and religion is the wrong start.
James Guest was a state Liberal MP from 1976 to 1996. E-mail: