Please don't go there! The interpretation of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in Victoria

There are worrying developments in the business of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in Victoria. I have, from the very beginning, been a cautious defender of the laws, on the grounds that no Christian should ever be guilty of vilifying another human being (cf. 8th Commandment and the EIC statement “Talking about Other Faiths”).

My support for the laws is based on a clear understanding of the distinction between saying something about a particular belief, and saying something about a particular person or a class of persons that who hold that belief.

For instance, to use an example I gave in conversation with Shannon the other day, a priest who gets up in the pulpit and says that the “teachings of Islam are of the devil” would not be in contravention of the Victorian laws (–he would, however, be in at least a degree of contravention of the 2nd Vatican Council’s declaration on the nature of Islam).

But if he wrote in his Sunday Bulletin that “Muslims are of the devil”, then he most certainly would be in contravention of the law (and of the Christian law of charity), since he would be vilifying the people themselves.

However, it appears that this distinction is in danger of being lost, and at the highest level of interpretation of the law. The following dialogue was recorded by Barney Zwartz of The Age at the current appeal hearing for Pastor Danny Nalliah And Catch the Fire:

Brind Woinarski, QC [for the ICV]: “If one vilifies Islam, one is by necessary consequence vilifying people who hold that religious belief.”
Justice Geoffrey Nettle: “There must be intellectually a distinction between the ideas and those who hold them?”
Woinarski: “We don’t agree with that, but in this case it’s an irrelevant distinction, because Muslims and Islam were mishmashed up together.”
Justice Nettle: “Are you saying it’s impossible to incite hatred against a religion without also inciting hatred against people who hold it?”
Woinarski: “Yes.”
(Source: The Age, Barney Zwartz August 22, 2006)

Woinarski is quite correct in saying that Catch the Fire “mishmashed” Muslims and Islam together, but it is essential that we maintain the distinction. To mishmash together the idea and the people who hold the idea would be a disaster for both community harmony and religious liberty (as well as plain old clear thinking). Christian theology has traditionally kept these categories quite separate, as in the old saying “Hate the sin, but love the sinner”.

The result of going down this line will be a lose-lose situation for everyone.

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