The UK is trying to pass laws banning incitement to religious hatred. Here's what happened in Australia with such laws.
The first major case under the Victorian legislation was brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) against Catch the Fire Ministries (CTFM), a small evangelical organisation. CTFM had held a seminar in which some nasty things were said about Islam and its adherents. Some Muslims were in attendance, at the suggestion of an employee of the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria (the government body that polices the legislation). Understandably, they were outraged by what was said. The ICV then initiated legal action on their behalf.
For an obscure organisation with a controversial message it must have seemed too good to be true. Suddenly, CTFM had an international stage and were on the cusp of martyrdom. The ideas that had so offended the Muslims were being aired and discussed on radio, television and in print. Their audience had grown exponentially as had their importance to the public debate. Indeed, so far reaching was the interest in the case that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs took the extraordinary step of requesting updates from the judge, so as to allow Australia's embassy in Washington to respond to correspondence from concerned American Christians. The case had transformed a couple of evangelicals into suburban Joan of Arcs being burnt on the pyre of political correctness.
The effects of the suit were felt across the community. Small teams of Christians, armed with notepads and tape recorders, began attending Islamic lectures, recording possible transgressions that might be used as evidence in the case. Islamic bookstores were mined for nuggets of intolerance. True to its promise, the law had brought Christians and Muslims together like never before.
The court case dragged on for months as the judge listened to complex theological evidence tendered by both sides. Arguments flew back and forth about the nuances of Arabic grammar, the interpretation of various verses of the Koran, the requisite qualifications for Islamic scholarship, and the relative legitimacy of different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Nobody, it seemed, noticed the inappropriateness of a secular court, more accustomed to matters of trade practices disputes and parking fines, presiding over a case centering on contentious theological arguments.
The judge ruled in favour of the Islamic Council, finding, among other things, that the Christian pastors had mocked Islam and not discussed the religion in 'good faith'. The remedy was to order the two ministers to apologise by way of a court-defined statement on their website, the ministry newsletter, and by taking out four large advertisements in Victoria's two daily newspapers. It wasn't enough that they apologise to the individuals they offended or even the Muslim community, but rather they had to apologise to the entire society. In addition, they were ordered never to utter or publish the offending comments in public again in any Australian state or on the internet.
They refused to comply, insisting they would rather go to jail.
Recent media reports place the legal costs for this Pyrrhic victory at over $1million. With CTFM having filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, this expense will only mount. As will the emotions.