When Catholic Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous wrote a booklet entitled “Don’t Mess with Marriage”, it never occurred to him that the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner was about to mess with him.
The Catholic bishop was merely doing what Catholic bishops do. He wrote a booklet outlining Catholic doctrine for Catholic parents interested in Catholic teaching.
That’s when a transgendered activist and federal Greens candidate stepped in.
The activist complained to the Commission that the booklet was insulting. As well as an apology, she demanded that Catholic Education implement a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex awareness program for all staff and students.
It’s a mystery why she did not go further and insist that Catholic boys and girls also be taught – in between learning to “love thy neighbour” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you – about asexuals, androsexuals, gynesexuals and pansexuals. But baby steps, right?
In Tasmania, it is illegal to engage in conduct that insults, offends or humiliates someone on the basis of their sexual orientation if it is reasonable to anticipate that someone might be insulted.
So you have to anticipate the feelings of complete strangers before you say anything. And failing to correctly anticipate how your words might make someone whom you’ve never met feel, can put you in breach of the law.
This was Bishop Porteous’ mistake!
He should have anticipated that a transgendered activist might intercept his letter to Catholic parents and be suddenly offended by Catholic teaching that has been well known for 2000 years.
Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Robin Banks – a great name if ever there was one, but I digress – concluded that the complaint against Bishop Porteous had merit.
Ms Banks said the Bishop’s booklet asserted “messing with marriage is messing with kids” and this was a problem because it “brings to people’s minds child abuse.”
Bishop Porteous was to be held responsible not only for the words he wrote but also for the thoughts that might come to mind when people, lacking in basic comprehension skills, read them.
So Tasmanian taxpayers were to fund an investigation into whether or not Catholic teaching on sex and marriage might be offensive to a transgendered activist with an eye on garnering much needed publicity for an upcoming tilt at a federal election. The Anti-Discrimination Commissioner was not just robbin’ banks!
Ms Banks attempted what the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal call “conciliation”. Conciliation means the action of stopping someone from being angry.
If Catholic doctrine makes you angry, fear not! The Anti-Discrimination Commission will facilitate conciliation because the State is now responsible to help you manage your feelings.
Media reports at the time said that all the activist wanted was for the Catholic Church to make amendments to their booklet on marriage.
Bishop Porteous must have felt so stupid. How much time and trouble could he have saved himself if he had simply allowed activists to edit Catholic doctrine before he preached it?
And while he was at it, he could have had activists run an eye over the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Return of Christ, just to make sure they were all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex compliant.
When the Catholic Church refused to change their 2000-year-old doctrine on the say-so of an activist; and when the activist refused to accept the Bishop’s statement of regret for causing offence, the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner decided the matter would go to a tribunal hearing.
A tribunal hearing would have discovered that Catholic Bishops and transgendered activists disagreed on existential questions such as the definition and purpose of marriage. Who knew?
The Tribunal would have adjudicated on whether the complainant felt humiliated and whether the bishop intended to offend. That’s right. Government bureaucrats would have investigated the emotions of the complainant and the inner thoughts of the churchman.
Presumably, the outcome would be better for the Bishop if he could prove he was not thinking malicious thoughts when he penned his booklet. The outrageous thing is that an unelected, unrepresentative public servant now has the power to probe the thoughts of a free man to determine whether or not a crime has been committed.
The activist eventually dropped her complaint, but only after Bishop Porteous had spent thousands of dollars on lawyers and wasted a year of his life agonising over whether or not he would be criminalised for expressing his sincerely held religious belief. Commissioner Robin Banks didn’t need to punish Bishop Porteous. The process was the punishment.
The activist could afford to drop her case against the Catholic Bishop because she didn’t need a judgment in her favour in order to win. She merely needed to make an example of one minister, and a thousand ministers across the country, not wanting the expense or the stress of being dragged before the courts, could be counted on to censor themselves.
Whilst the case against Bishop Porteous was dropped, the law in Tasmania remains. I was with pastors in Hobart earlier this year, and they were well aware that if they say the wrong thing, there is nothing stopping someone from claiming to have been offended and then hauling them before Robin Banks’ successor.
Think about that for a moment. If you say the wrong thing in Tasmania – and by the “wrong thing”, I mean the suddenly un-fashionable thing – there’s a Government bureaucrat who can punish you.
Israel Folau used to be known for his exploits on the rugby field. But one fateful day earlier this year, when asked a question on social media about God’s plan for homosexuals, he foolishly gave his honest opinion – that gays would go to hell unless they sought forgiveness.
Well all hell did break lose, against Israel Folau.
Suddenly, a footballer’s opinion about the afterlife created more outrage than the fact that Australia hasn’t won a Rugby World Cup in almost 20 years.
Australian Rugby boss Raelene Castle said that Folau’s religious belief about eternal judgment had been “the singularly most difficult thing” she had ever had to deal with!
Don’t worry that Rugby, unlike AFL, is not on free-to-air television. Forget that NZ Rugby has asked the ARU to reduce the number of Australian Super Rugby teams because they are worried about the poor standard of our players … the greatest challenge to Rugby Union in this country is a fullback’s musings on eternal damnation.
The ARU boss told The Australian Newspaper: “I really wish I could sit here and say that by sanctioning him we’ll fix it. But it really is not that simple because of the freedom-of-speech element.”
Ah yes, that pesky freedom of speech element. You know, where people’s speech can’t be controlled by their betters. And trust me, our betters would love nothing better than to control our speech.
The former Human Rights Commission President, Gillian Triggs, told a crowd in Hobart last year that: “Sadly you can say what you like around the kitchen table at home.”
Well what is this country coming to when, from Hobart to Cairns, families are still able to speak freely around their kitchen tables!
If only a bureaucrat could sit at every dinner table around the nation, adjudicating what family members can and can’t say to one another!
It sounds ridiculous. But the ridiculous people are not joking.
The same people who rightly insist that they should not be told what to do in their bedrooms, want the power to tell you what you can say in your kitchen.
The question is not whether you agreed with Israel Folau. The question is whether he should have the right to say what he thinks. And be careful how you decide. Because the same principle you use to deny Folau the right of expression is the very principle that may well be one day used to deny you of yours.
Australian rugby sponsors said their commitment to diversity and tolerance meant they could not tolerate Folau’s divergent view. They would celebrate diversity by using their sponsorship to enforce conformity.
They insisted that rugby must prove it was all about inclusion, and how better to celebrate inclusion than by excluding Folau …. because of his views on what happens after you die, for goodness sake!
It must have been a surprise to Folau to learn that corporations had such strong convictions about what does and does not happen after a person gives up the ghost.
The difference between Folau and the corporate sponsors was this – and it’s significant. Whilst Folau said he believed homosexuals would be judged in the afterlife, those who disagreed with Folau wanted him judged now!
You tell me who is the greater danger; the religious footballer who, in answer to a question, says he believes some people will be punished after they die; or his detractors who say that someone must be punished in this life, merely for what they believe about the next?
A Qantas spokesperson said Folau’s comments were disappointing. Well God forbid that any of us hold religious views that might disappoint an airline.
But here’s the part of the Folau story which was truly frightening. And it didn’t get anywhere near enough media focus. One of Australia’s Human Rights Commissioners told the media he would make himself available to counsel Israel Folau about “how better to express his views”.
We now have a Government bureaucracy of highly paid public servants who make themselves available, via the media of course, to help you better express your religious views.
Here’s a view. The Human Rights Commission should mind its own business. (Admittedly, I could have done with some help expressing that view)
Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow told the media: “I will write to the Australian Rugby Union to offer to meet with Folau – to hear his side of the story, and to discuss how he can live out his faith while being conscious of the impact his words can have on others.”
What qualifies Mr Santow to tell Israel Folau – or anyone else for that matter – how to “live out your faith”?
Here’s the frightening thing; in an inclusive culture, it increasingly seems that the logical next step is for dissenting voices to need State permission to speak.
What seems to have been missed in this whole episode is that not a single Australian Human Rights commissioner sprang to the defence of a Polynesian Christian who was being vilified and threatened with sanction for merely answering a question about this religion.
Just as not a single Human Rights Commissioner sprang to the defence of a Tasmanian Bishop who was being vilified and threatened with sanction for merely saying what Penny Wong, Julia Gillard and Barak Obama had all been saying a few years earlier.
Raelene Castle from the Australian Rugby Union said that she was trying to find a balance between Folau’s right to speak and other people’s right to not be offended. She said that she was committed to helping Israel Folau “walk the line”.
It all sounds very reasonable, doesn’t it? Striking a balance. Finding the line.
But what’s the point of free speech unless it’s for speech that is over the line and unbalanced?
If everybody only says what everybody agrees with, then there’s no need for freedom of speech. And if no-one is allowed to say anything that deviates from Government-policed parameters, then speech is not free at all.
To be candid, it doesn’t seem like corporations or activists or government bureaucrats are that interested in striking much of a balance. They’ve drawn a line and they are increasingly outspoken about which side of that line they are on.
Whether it’s climate science or gay marriage or gender fluidity – one side has gleefully swapped that Voltaire line about disagreeing with what you say but defending to the death your right to say it, for an easier two-word phrase: “Shut up”.
This does not bode well for our future, particularly when it comes to the subject of religion.
Religion, properly understood, is our set of answers to the big questions. Where did we come from? What’s the purpose of life? How do we determine what is right and wrong? What happens when we die?
If we are not free to honestly discuss those issues, without fear of being dragged before a Government tribunal or pushed out of our place of employment, we are left with something far worse than a few people with hurt feelings. We are left with an eerie silence.
We are left with a world in which everything has been settled. Science is settled. History is settled. Truth is relative. Religion is neutered. There is nothing left to discuss, nothing left to learn and so nowhere left to go.
Free speech and a dynamic, growing, advancing culture are intimately linked. A culture that is too weak to bear a dissenting word on race or religion or gender fluidity or reef science is a society that will cease to grow and then decay and then decline, and fast.
As author Mark Steyn once said, a safe space is where a culture goes to die.