Some religions are more equal than others

A Melbourne Catholic schoolteacher has attempted to use Victoria's racial and religious vilification laws to protest against a school history textbook's biased treatment of the Catholic Church. John Morrissey from News Weekly attended the hearing at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT)

An attempt to use Victorian law to defend the reputation of the Catholic Church from bias and caricature recently came to a dead end at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). A Melbourne Catholic schoolteacher, Bob Mears, recently complained that a Year 8 history textbook Humanities Alive 2 vilified the Catholic religion by misrepresenting the role and actions of the medieval Church. But he was told by VCAT, at a hearing on Monday, August 7, that the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 was not intended to restrict free speech, but to prevent the incitement of violence against people "among us here today" on the basis of their race or religion.

(Last year, VCAT, under the terms of the same Act, found two Christian pastors of Catch the Fires Ministries guilty of supposedly vilifying Islam by quoting from the Koran).

All of Mr Mears's complaints about inaccuracy, omission and selective use of evidence in the textbook were dismissed as of no relevance to the court and its interpretation of the Act. Although the Act mentions "severe ridicule", VCAT made it quite clear that inciting "hatred or contempt" did not - in the intention of the legislation - mean making another feel offended, nor was redress under the Act possible for anyone wishing to ventilate a concern. The complainant's matter for concern was thus consigned to what the public rationale for the Act calls "trivial comment, impolite remarks or legitimate discussion".

Humanities Alive 2 is a colourful and expensive ($51.95) publication prescribed in a great many government, Catholic and independent schools. Its historical content is superficial and the contents of its accompanying CD-Rom disk are both banal and trivial. Sweeping unsupported generalisations about the Church's oppressive behaviour over a period of perhaps 700 years are relieved by scarcely any mention of her role in sponsoring hospitals, welfare and progress, or any mention of great figures like St Francis of Assisi, beloved of all Christians.

As Mr Mears wrote in April this year, in a letter to Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks, the textbook violated the state's religious vilification laws by "seriously lampooning Catholic clergy and, by gross selectivity and calumnies, giving children the false impression that, in the main, medieval Catholic clergy were murderously oppressive, avaricious, licentious, corrupt and that medieval Catholics were non-thinking, uninspired and having a blind religious obedience".

Comments in the national press earlier this year have already publicised this textbook's extraordinary distortions of the Crusades, characterising them as equivalent to modern terrorism. It is also curious that Martin Luther is presented uncritically, while the Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant Reformation is smeared relentlessly. On the CD-Rom accompanying Humanities Alive 2 is a coloured illustration depicting the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc. Featured in the picture is a crucifix; but, with a sweep of a computer mouse, this symbol - sacred to Christians - is transformed into a witch's broom. Thus an officially sanctioned textbook invites Year 8 schoolchildren to desecrate a sacred icon as part of their education.

On educational grounds alone, Humanities Alive 2 fails every criterion of presenting objective history; but especially when prescribed in Catholic schools, it does nothing to strengthen the already fragile faith of young people in the religion both of their baptism and to which their schools ostensibly belong. For the wider community, the textbook regurgitates the old bigoted stereotypes about Catholicism which were common 50 years ago and which have received new impetus in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

The Victorian Government denies that its Act is "law only for racial and religious minorities", but it is reasonable to ask whether Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or any other smaller religious grouping in Australia would have had its history distorted and caricatured with impunity.

The fate of the two Christian pastors of Catch the Fires Ministries, whose audience - unlike children of compulsory school age - attended their function voluntarily, suggests that the Act has been designed to work in just this way. The legal loophole, entirely up to the interpretation of the court, lies in the words "reasonably and in good faith". But, as George Orwell expressed it in Animal Farm, "All ... are equal, but some ... are more equal than others."



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