Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001

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The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 was implemented by the Steve Bracks' Labor government in the state of Victoria, Australia. It was enacted on 1 January 2002, and generated significant public debate.

Opponents of the Act consider that it is too restrictive of free speech, while supporters consider that laws against vilification are similar to laws against defamation, and are justifiable in order to prevent harm to those affected.[1]

Islamic Council of Victoria and Catch the Fire Ministries[edit]

The first major ruling on the laws (the only earlier reported decision was summarily dismissed)[2] went to the Islamic Council of Victoria against Catch the Fire Ministries on 17 December 2004.

On 9 March 2002, Daniel Scot spoke at a seminar concerning Islam, sponsored by Catch the Fire Ministries, an organization led by Danny Nalliah. The seminar was attended by three Australian Muslims, who along with the Islamic Council of Victoria, launched action under the Act, claiming that the intent of the speech had been to vilify Muslims, rather than to discuss Islam itself. They also complained about written materials which had been distributed by Danny Nalliah. After being considered by the Equal Opportunity Commission, the case was heard by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and became the first real test case under the Act.

In the landmark ruling on 17 December 2004, the Tribunal ruled that Nalliah, Scot and Catch the Fire Ministries had breached the new law. Writing in The Age newspaper, David Palmer claimed that the finding by Vice President Michael Higgins meant that "truth is no longer an acceptable defence".[3] The Vice President heard further submissions regarding 'remedies' early in 2005. On 22 June 2005, Vice President Higgins delivered his final verdict on the religious vilification issue regarding "remedies". He found that financial compensation would be inappropriate, but ordered Nalliah and Scot to take out newspaper advertisements to the value of $68,690 which summarised the findings in the case. Nalliah once again slammed the ruling, comparing the legislation to "sharia law by stealth". He vowed that he would rather go to jail than comply with the ruling. He publicly declared his intention to continue fighting the case, potentially as far as the High Court of Australia. The Age newspaper quoted him as stating "We may have lost the battle, but the war is not over. The law has to be removed, there is no question."[4]

The case attracted widespread attention in the United States and Matt Francis, from the Australian Embassy in Washington DC claimed that the embassy was "flooded with messages from Americans concerned to learn that two Christian pastors in Australia are facing accusations of vilifying Islam". He also claimed a significant number of e-mails and phone calls were received about the case.[5]

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit interfaith public interest law firm based in Washington, intervened on Pastor Daniel Scot's behalf, and attempted to engage a dialogue with the Attorney General of Australia. The firm sent multiple letters of concern that touched on Australia's Human Rights record. Part of the first exchange stated that:[6]

"Australia is obliged by international conventions to protect rights of conscience, freedom of expression, and equal protection under the law as Australia has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its enforcement mechanism, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The free speech, belief, and religious exercise provisions of Articles 18, 19, and 26 in the ICCPR protect the right freely to preach about and analyze religious truth-claims of competing religions."

The US non-profit proceeded to provide funding for legal representation with local counsel, and provided legal arguments employed before the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Nalliah's lawyers had previously appealed to the Supreme Court of Victoria, in an 'Originating Motion' alleging both that Higgins showed signs of bias, that there were errors in the decision and that the Act itself was unconstitutional. Following the decision, a formal appeal was lodged with the Supreme Court – Court of Appeal – and the Originating Motion was dropped. The Appeal was heard in August 2006.[7]

On 14 December 2006, the Supreme Court of Victoria (Court of Appeal), allowed the appeal. The court set aside the 2004 orders of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and ordered that the matter be remitted for a second hearing. Further, they ordered that no new evidence be admitted, and that Vice President Higgins not preside over the new hearing.[7] The Islamic Council of Victoria was ordered to pay half of Scot's and Nalliah's legal costs of the appeal.

Salvation Army[edit]

In 2005 the third[8] case using the act was brought to VCAT against the Salvation Army by Ararat prison inmate Robin Fletcher. Prisoner Fletcher, serving a 10-year sentence, is a Wiccan who claimed in his suit that the 'Salvos', "posed a danger to his safety",[9] and that the Salvation Army's 'Alpha Christianity' course, offered in jails, discriminated against him on the ground of his Wiccan religion.

Justice Stuart Morris, the president of VCAT presided over the case, and summarily dismissed Fletcher's claims against the Salvation Army, Corrections Victoria and course distributors CMC Australasia as "preposterous". He added that the allegations were "nowhere near the mark" of religious vilification. In his summation he called for the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act to be amended to limit people's right to launch a lawsuit."[10]

Islamic holy war books[edit]

In July 2005, the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council threatened to take a Melbourne bookshop, run by the Islamic Information and Services Network of Australasia, to court for alleged breaches of the Act and the Crimes Act.[11]

Books promoting Islamic holy war and the killing of non-Muslims who insult Muhammad were submitted to the Victoria Police security intelligence unit by the Jewish council. The council's director of policy analysis, Ted Lapkin, described the books for sale as "extreme jihadist material, explicitly calling for violence against non-Muslims".[11]

Media blitz[edit]

In February 2006 Bracks launched a $260,000 media "blitz" to counter community opposition to the act.[10] The advertising campaign was attacked by the State Opposition as a "politically motivated campaign by the Bracks Government using taxpayers' money". The Bracks Government had by the start of 2006 received more than 5000 letters concerning the laws, with the vast majority opposed. Opposition youth spokesman Nick Kotsiras said he believed the campaign was designed to counter strong community opposition to the laws and would be aimed particularly at young people, stating that "this only illustrates this Government's inability to deal with the cultural differences that exist here in Victoria."

Victorian Liberal Party position[edit]

State shadow Attorney general Andrew McIntosh announced prior to the election that the Liberal Party would repeal the religious section of the "fundamentally flawed" Act.[12] While addressing a protest rally, organised by the Coalition for Free Speech, outside the Victorian Parliament, he said they would keep the act but fine tune it, stating that "large sections of the community advocate on behalf of the act, and large sections say it is disgraceful. We need to bring the groups together."


In January 2006, nineteen Christian leaders from Melbourne's largest churches gathered 27,000 signatures for the removal of the civil provisions of the Act. They expressed "dismay" at the premiers continued insistence of faith leaders support.[3]

Independent MP Russell Savage, whose support helped Bracks form Government in 1999, described the act as "the worst legislation he had ever seen passed".[13]

Jenny Stokes, of the Coalition for Free Speech, which organised a protest rally against the law, said she welcomed the commitment to repealing the act's religious section but wanted a commitment that the Liberals wouldn't replace it.[12]


Further reading[edit]

  • Garth Blake, "Promoting Religious Tolerance in a Multifaith Society: Religious Vilification Legislation in Australia and the UK." The Australian Law Journal, 81 (2007): 386–405.

External links[edit]