Australia: Limitations on hate
speech based on religion
The UK and some of its former colonies, such as Canada and Australia, place
far more limitations on their citizens' speech than does the U.S. Canada
does not allow hate speech involving attacks on people because of their race,
gender, sexual orientation, etc. But the legislation
does allow such hate speech if it is religiously motivated. Australia goes one
step further, and bans certain types of hate speech even if it is part of a
sermon or presentation on religion.
Two Evangelical Christian pastors were convicted of violating the state of
Victoria's "Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001." They had delivered
a seminar which compared Christianity and Islam. A court judged the speech to
have violated the law, and ordered the pastors to give a public apology. The
decision has been appealed.
The following is for general information only. If you need to make a decision
based on the law, please consult the full text which is available online.
The government of the state of Victoria launched "A Bill to promote racial
and religious tolerance by prohibiting the vilification of persons on the ground
of race or religious belief or activity, to amend the Equal Opportunity Act 1995
and for other purposes." The short title is the "Racial and Religious
Tolerance Act 2001." It was passed on 2001-JUN-14 and came into effect on
According to the Victorian Office of Multicultural Affairs:
"The Act prohibits racial and religious vilification. Vilification is
public behaviour that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or
revulsion or severe ridicule of another person or group of people because of
their race or religion. The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act sets a high
standard for determining vilification, and it is only in extreme and serious
cases that vilification will be found to have occurred."
"The Act provides a community standard about our responsibility towards each
other in a multicultural society. It seeks to ensure that people are treated
with dignity and respect, regardless of their particular race or religion,
and do not become targets of vilifying behaviour."
Paragraphs 3 and 4 of the law's preamble states:
"...some Victorians are vilified on the ground of their race or their
religious belief or activity. Vilifying conduct is contrary to democratic
values because of its effect on people of diverse ethnic, Indigenous and
religious backgrounds. It diminishes their dignity, sense of self-worth and
belonging to the community. It also reduces their ability to contribute to,
or fully participate in, all social, political, economic and cultural
aspects of society as equals, thus reducing the benefit that diversity
brings to the community.
It is therefore desirable that the Parliament enact law for the people of
Victoria that supports racial and religious tolerance."
Section 8 (1) of the law states:
"A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of
another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred
against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that
other person or class of persons."
Other sections of the law state that:
- The person's motivation is irrelevant.
- No violation of the law happens if "the person's conduct was engaged
in reasonably and in good faith" and had a "genuine...religious...purpose."
The law provides maximum penalties of Australian $30,000 (about US $23,000)
and six months in jail.
Author Mark Zimsak commented about a campaign of misinformation promoted by
parts of Victoria's religious communities. Zimsak noted:
"That discussion and criticism of religion can occur under the Act is
evidenced by the fact that you will be able to find books in most public
libraries that critique and criticise most religions and religious beliefs.
There has not been any attempt to have such books banned under the law."
He wrote that:
"The national Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission
released a report in 2004 documenting increased levels of discrimination
against Arabs and Muslims in Australia following the September 11, 2001
terrorist attack in the US and the terrorist bombing in Bali in October
2002. Muslim women were particular targets of physical violence carried out
by strangers. Such incidents included having dogs set upon them, attempts to
run over them, being spat at, having things thrown at them from cars and
having their hajibs [sic] pulled off. The victims of such attacks
often fear leaving their homes."
"However, harassment and discrimination has also been directed at people
mistaken as Muslims, such as Christian Arabs and Sikh men wearing turbans.
In one case an Egyptian Christian woman was knocked to the ground and needed
hospital treatment after a man threw stones at her from a passing car."
The incident and complaint:
May Helou, an employee of the The Equal Opportunity Commission and
member of the Islamic Council of Victoria recruited three Muslims to
attend a seminar, given by Pastors Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah in 2002-MAR. It
was titled "The Nature Of Islam," and was organized by Catch The Fire
Ministries, an Australian Evangelical Christian group affiliated with the
Assemblies of God. Part of their presentation involved a comparison between
Christianity and Islam.
Afterwards, the three observers prepared a 52 count complaint against the
ministry and the two pastors. 4
A one-day mediation session did not resolve the problem. The Islamic
Council of Victoria laid a complaint under the tolerance law. Hearings at
the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal started in 2003-OCT and
continued for 40 days, spread over a total of nine months.
According to Wikipedia, The Roman Catholic and Uniting
Churches supported the Islamic Council while and Pentecostal and Evangelical
groups alleging that the law unduly restricted free religious speech.
Pastor Danny Nalliah, said:
"This has caused us a tremendous amount of time and stress.....I have
lived in Saudi Arabia and learned the real nature of Islam. It is to
dominate other religions and other cultures. The Koran speaks of world
domination. I have spoken to a lot of Muslim leaders who say it is easy to
exploit the Western system. The say the key is to be patient, to learn the
language, and to build up numbers. Then build up political power....Even
Christians believe everyone should know about Christ and want people to
follow Christ. But the worry is with Islam, it goes one step further. If
peaceful methods fail, the Koran says you can use violence."
The case has been widely reported in the media, particularly in
Fundamentalist and other Evangelical web sites. A Google search for
scot nalliah tribunal returned
592 hits on 2006-AUG-24. Nalliah criticized the decision, and compared the law
to "sharia law by stealth." He said that he would prefer to go to jail
rather than apologize.
During 2004-NOV, Nalliah ran for a seat in the Australian Senate as a
candidate for the Family First Party. One of his competitors Barnaby
Joyce, attacked Nalliah, quoting from one of Nalliah's brochures. According to
Wikipedia, they allegedly:
"....asked parishioners to pray to their god in order that he might pull
down 'Satan's strongholds', which included brothels, gambling places, bottle
shops, mosques and temples (including Freemason,
Buddhist and Hindu temples)."
The ruling and appeal:
On 2004-DEC-17, the court ruled that Nalliah and Scot had broken the law.
Sentencing was reserved for early 2005.
On 2005-JUN-22, Judge Michael Higgins of the Victorian Civil and
Administrative Tribunal ordered Nalliah and Scot to make an apology in the
form of an advertisement in two of Victoria's main newspapers. The total cost
would have been Australian $68,690 (about US $52,000).
Total legal costs to this point exceeded Australian $1 million (about US
According to Wikipedia, Nalliah and Scot's lawyers have appealed to the Court of Appeal, "alleging
both that Higgins showed signs of bias and that the Act itself was
A conservative Christian legal and defense group in the U.S., the Becket
Fund for Religious Liberty is supporting Nalliah and Scot's appeal. Becket
Fund president, Kevin J. "Seamus" Hasson, is quoted as saying in an
article titled "Aussie Pastors Face Jail Sentence for Expressing Beliefs:"
"Pastors Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah are victims of a misguided piece
of legislation that flies in the face of religious freedom protected by
international law. Instead of promoting religious tolerance, the Act
inevitably promotes disharmony and suspicion. Now people are afraid to
engage in any genuine dialogue about religious belief because someone might
be taking notes in preparation for a lawsuit."
"Our clients were expressing their opinions regarding the differences
between the two religions. It doesn’t matter whether the government or
anyone else thinks their opinions were wrong -- everyone has the right to be
wrong on matters of belief without fear of government sanction."
Barny Zwartz of The Age newspaper reported on the hearing before the Court of
Appeal between 2006-AUG-14 and AUG-22:
"Debbie Mortimer, SC, for the Islamic Council of Victoria, said the
Muslim side had sought a public apology and undertakings not to repeat the
vilification, but the pastors had refused and said they did not recognise
the findings or even the law on which they were based (the Racial and
Religious Tolerance Act)."
"She said the tribunal gave the pastors another chance before ordering
them to apologise in newspaper advertisements and granting the injunctions
forbidding them from repeating the statements anywhere in Australia. She
said the ban applied only to the two pastors."
"Justice Geoffrey Nettle said: 'Surely that can't justify restraining
them from saying something that said by anyone else would be legal? In the
case of the newsletter, for example, Pastor Nalliah says many churches have
closed down. What's wrong with saying that'?"
"Ms Mortimer replied: 'The tribunal has found there is something wrong
with saying it. Truth is not a defence, it's irrelevant to contravention of
the act'." 7
The court has reserved its decision.
Text of: "Version No. 001, Racial and Religious Tolerance Act
2001, Act No. 47/2001," 2002-JAN-01, at:
"Racial and Religious Tolerance Act," Victorian government, at:
Mark Zimsak, "Religious tolerance will ensure community safety," On Line Opinion, 2005-AUG-24, at:
Paul Sheehan, "Spreading the word of intolerance," 2004-OCT-04, at:
"Danny Nalliah," Wikipedia, at:
"Aussie Pastors Face Jail Sentences for Expressing Beliefs," The Becket Fund, 2006-AUG-14, at:
Barney Zwartz, "Questions over ruling on Muslims," The Age newspaper, 2006-AUG-23, at:
Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2006-AUG-24
Latest update: 2006-SEP-07
Author: B.A. Robinson