Two responses to the article by David Palmer on the RRTA

That the world at large may have something against which to judge the claims of Rev. David Palmer with regard to the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (today being amended in the State Parliament of Victoria) herewith the letter to the editor of The Age co-authored by Bishop Peter Stasiuk of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (Chairman of the Victorian Heads of Churches) and Maureen Postma (General Secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches) which appeared in the 2nd of May edition:

Legislation that helps faiths to live in harmony

“WE FIND it quite disgraceful that David Palmer (Opinion, 1/5) continues to misrepresent both the processes undertaken by the Government and church and faith leaders in regards to the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 and the extent of the opposition to the act in the Christian church and leadership. Mr Palmer, while citing cases dealt with by this legislation, fails to acknowledge the role of the court cases in the development of the proposed amendments and is misleading in his contention that no similar legislation exists elsewhere in Australia. He is also wrong when he describes the effect of the act on racial and religious harmony in Victoria.

“In regard to the Multifaith Forum held in September 2005: Premier Steve Bracks hosted this forum and those attending were given an opportunity to ask questions of the representative of the Equal Opportunity Commission (the body mandated to deal with complaints under the act). The statement produced at the conclusion of this process — agreed to but not actually signed by representatives of 31 faith-based organisations — included amendments by Christian leaders, one of whom was the leader of the church of which Mr Palmer is a member. The Premier and the Government have continued to work with the leadership of the Christian churches and other faiths on the agreed “actions” arising from that forum — and these include the proposed amendments, one of which is the explicit allowance of proselytising.

“While there is opposition to this legislation from some sections of Christian communities, it cannot be stated that “the clear majority of Christian leaders” do not support the Premier and the processes undertaken to amend the act. Heads of the Christian churches have taken the trouble to be informed, to discuss among themselves and with the Government their concerns and the proposed amendments. It is the case, however, that those who think that the amendments do not go far enough have sought to promote the divisions that do exist.

“One should note that legislation that deals with human behaviour often has to be “tested” in the courts, and this act is not different. It is as a result of the court cases that the proposed amendments have been developed.

“It is not the case that NSW does not have similar legislation. NSW had a Racial Discrimination Act that was extended to cover ethno- specific religions.

“One should note that while differences of opinion have arisen most specifically over the court action relating to Catch the Fire Ministries and the Islamic Council of Victoria, this same court action brought together people of different faiths and increased dialogues within faith communities.

“It is quite amazing that Mr Palmer, while wanting to be seen to promote racial and religious harmony, seems to cite with approval British legislation that allows insult or abuse not only of other religions but also their adherents. The act in Victoria allows for the freedom of religion, the practice and promotion of one’s religion, the freedom to critique another religion. It does not allow for serious vilification of another because of their race or religion — and “vilification” means the incitement of hatred, serious contempt, ridicule or revulsion.

“One would have assumed that all citizens of Victoria would have been encouraged by legislation that allows freedom of religion and includes the inability of others to vilify them. On this basis we could build an harmonious and, at the very least, tolerant society.”

Archbishop Peter Stasiuk, chairman, Heads of Churches Committee; Maureen Postma, general secretary, Victorian Council of Churches

And for another, non-Christian perspective, see today’s article in The Age by Daniel Aghion, entitled “Speech that spreads hate is a concern of the law”. Daniel is a barrister and public relations officer for the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.

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