A landmark Australian legal case has put freedom of speech under the spotlight when a judge ruled evangelical pastors had breached a new race and religion law when presenting a seminar and articles on Islam.

Pentecostal Pastor Daniel Nalliah (president of Catch the Fire Ministries) and speaker Pastor Daniel Scot may now face financial penalties at a hearing as early as January.

Judge Michael Higgins of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) found on Friday December 17 that a Catch the Fire seminar in March 2002—and both a newsletter and website article—had breached the state's Religious and Racial Tolerance Act of 2001.

Judge Higgins said Scot had made fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct at the seminar, and presented his talk in a way that was "essentially hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their god, Allah, the prophet Mohammed and in general Muslim religious beliefs and practices."

The judge ruled Scot had made statements that Muslims were liars and demons and that the Qur'an promoted violence, killing and looting.

"Pastor Scot failed to differentiate between Muslims throughout the world, [and] he preached a literal translation of the Qur'an and of Muslims' religious practices which was not mainstream but was more representative of a small group in the Gulf states," Judge Higgins ruled.

'Black Day'

Reacting to the verdict, Pastor Nalliah told Christianity Today it was a "black day for freedom of speech and truth, as truth is not a defense under this new racial and religious vilification legislation.

"This law is subjective rather than objective, which leaves the door wide open for anyone to claim feeling hurt or vilified from words spoken or read from their very own religious text," he said.

Pastor Danny Nalliah had earlier released a statement via his Catch the Fire Ministries newsletter and website expressing love for Islamic followers: "We love the Muslims and we will continue to love them as they are created in the image of God and Jesus died for them also."

Ps Nalliah said he welcomed the tribunal hearing, describing it as an opportunity to stand for God's name and not bow down to any man. "I truly believe that what was meant for disaster, God has already turned into victory.

"The seminar, which was the main focus of the complaint, was meant for 250-300 people, but its subject has now been brought to the whole nation and indeed the world," Ps Nalliah said.

'Freedom Compromised'

Grant Chapman, president of Australian human rights group Tears of the Oppressed and a senator in the Federal Parliament, said the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act interferes with the right to express religious opinions.

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"The message to the Australian public is this: 'Sex and politics are fine. but don't talk about religion!'" Senator Chapman said.

"In practice, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 has allowed one religious group to take another religious group to court over a difference in religious opinion. However, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—to which Australia is a signatory—everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

"The guilty verdict in this case indicates the freedom of expression—and consequently the freedom of religion—of the average Australian has been compromised," the Senator said.

'Unwarranted Restriction'

Echoing the senator's concerns is Melbourne-based Christian ethics lobby group Salt Shakers, whose principals Peter and Jenny Stokes attended the March 2002 seminar.

Mrs Stokes, Salt Shakers research director, told Christianity Today she was concerned by the ruling. "The decision raises an enormous question about the quoting of religious texts in analyzing other religions.

"Many Christians from right across the denominational spectrum have expressed concern about the decision and see it as an unwarranted restriction on valid religious debate in Australia," she added.

"This case has already, during the last two years, been a means of waking up Christians, making them aware of what is happening around them. Since the handing down of the decision, many Christians have expressed their concern and offered their support to the two pastors."

Writing in November 2003, secular columnist for the Melbourne Herald Sun Andrew Bolt said the case demonstrated how the Equal Opportunity Commission could "cause more religious strife than it solves. And helps kill free speech in doing it."

Related Elsewhere:

Weblog commented on the case after the decision.

The entire decision is available online.

News elsewhere on the conviction include:

Two Pastors Found Guilty of Slandering Islam in Australia | An Australian legal tribunal has found two Christian pastors guilty of vilifying Islam. The pastors say they are the victims of an unjust law that muzzles free speech. (Christian Broadcasting Network, Dec. 20, 2004)
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Historic win in religious hatred case | Catch the Fire Ministries Pastor and speaker vilified Muslims, says judge, in first majore test of Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (The Age, via Asia Pacific Media Network, Dec 17, 2004)
Church found to have vilified Muslims | An evangelical Christian ministry accused of inciting hatred of Muslims and their beliefs may be ordered to pay damages for breaching Victoria's racial and religious tolerance laws. (Ninemsn, Australia, Dec 17, 2004)
Pastor ridiculed Muslims | An evangelical Christian ministry that made fun of Islamic beliefs has been found to have vilified Muslims in a landmark test of Victoria's three-year-old racial and religious tolerance laws. (Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, Dec 17, 2004)
Australian ministry vilified Muslims, court rules | An Australian court ruled today that a fundamentalist Christian ministry had vilified Muslims in a test case that could have repercussions for a proposed British law on incitement to religious hatred. (The Guardian, London, Dec 17, 2004)

More Christianity Today articles from the country are available on our Australia page.