This month’s edition of AMT I want to discuss one of the most profound legal cases in Australian Muslim legal history. That case was Catch the Fire Ministries Inc & Ors v Islamic Council of Victoria Inc  VSCA 284.
First, as by way of background, the introduction of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) (RRTA) marked a distinct shift in Victoria’s approach to racial and religious vilification. This was particularly evident in regards to religious vilification, as prior to this Act there existed no criminal or civil offence of religious vilification.
The object of the RRTA were:
- to promote racial and religious tolerance by prohibiting certain conduct involving the vilification of persons on the ground of race or religious belief or activity.
- to provide a means of redress for the victims of racial or religious vilification.
The Islamic Council of Victoria v Catch the Fire Ministries Inc. (herein ICV and CTFM respectively) was really a test case for the RRTA. The ICV, as the peak Muslim organization in Victoria, complained that the Catch the Fire Ministries, a Pentecostal religious organisation of which Pastor Danny Nalliah and Pastor Daniel Scot were public officers, had breached the RRTA. The parties without resolution attempted conciliation before the case was heard at in the tribunal and court. The case extended over three years.
The ICV alleged that there had been three breaches of the RRTA.
- Comments made by a Pastor of the church at a publicly advertised seminar discussing Islam were found to be “essentially hostile, demeaning, and derogatory to all Muslim people… and in general Muslim religious beliefs and practices”.
- Articles in the Summer 2001 edition of Catch the Fire Newsletter entitled “rise Up or Pay the price”, were found to have portrayed Islam as the ‘enemy’ who planned to take over Australia. It was determined that the material incited hatred against Muslims ‘as it engendered fear and created the impression Muslims are seeking to take over Australia.’
- An article published on the CTFM website in 2001, entitled, “An insight into Islam by Richard”, was found to have implied that “Islam was an inherently violent religion and it was not possible to separate Islam from terrorist groups”, suggesting that ‘Muslims endorse the killing of people based on their religion.”
On December 2004, at VCAT, Judge Michael Higgins that Daniel Nalliah and Daniel Scot were found to have breached the RRTA and CTFM were found to have authorised and assisted vilification.
An application for appeal on 16 grounds was made after the conclusion of the VCAT case. Three Justices of the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal found that the Tribunal had erred in their interpretation of the relevant part of the RRTA (section 8) and the case law used to substantiate this interpretation.
This led to the Court of Appeal overruling many of the legal justifications for the decision, and restructuring the test to be applied in deciding whether section 8 of the Act had been breached or not.
Significantly, the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal, whilst outlining what it believed to be the relevant law and tests to be applied, refused to make a final ruling upon the issue and instead referred it to be reheard in VCAT. However, the parties settled out of court and the case was never reheard.
As a postscript, a Parliamentary Internship Report by Andrew Roe for Luke Donnellan, Member for Narre Warren North, 2009 surveyed Victorian religious organizations’ perceptions of the RRTA. The key findings have been that:
“Religious bodies fell into two broad camps on whether Victoria needs the RRTA or whether it should be repealed, the Uniting Church, Islamic Council of Victoria, B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, and the Catholic Church supporting the Act, with Catch the Fire Ministries, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints opposing the Act.”