(CNSNews.com) - Two evangelical pastors in Australia found guilty 20 months ago of vilifying Muslims could go to prison if they fail in an appeal currently underway in Melbourne.
Helping them try to avoid that outcome is a Washington-based public interest law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The two are appealing against a decision by a legal tribunal in the state of Victoria which ruled that they had violated the state's controversial religious hatred law.
The case caused an uproar, and triggered a campaign to have the legislation amended or dumped altogether.
More than four years ago, Victorian Christians curious about Islam and its teachings in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war against the Taliban/al-Qaeda in Afghanistan were invited to attend a seminar to learn more.
Pakistan-born pastor Daniel Scot presented the seminar, which was organized by another pastor, Danny Nalliah, and his organization, Catch the Fire Ministries.
A Victorian Islamic body, which covertly sent members to monitor the event, subsequently brought a complaint under the newly implemented Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, claiming the seminar had incited "fear and hatred" against Muslims.
A drawn-out case culminated in a hearing before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), a body that operates like a normal court of law.
In December 2004, VCAT judge Michael Higgins ruled that Nalliah and Scot had incited "hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of" Muslims, both at the seminar and in articles published in a Catch the Fire newsletter and on the Internet.
Scot's address to the seminar, he said, was "essentially hostile, demeaning and derogatory of all Muslim people, their god, Allah, the prophet Mohammed and in general Muslim religious beliefs and practices."
And an article by Nalliah in his ministry's newsletter had included statements "likely to incite a feeling of hatred towards Muslims," the judge said.
In June 2005, Higgins ordered that the two apologize by publishing a prescribed statement in newspapers and on the Catch the Fire website.
They were also instructed to pledge never to repeat the comments which he deemed offensive -- or any other comments that would have same effect -- anywhere in Australia or on the Internet.
Higgins said if they did not comply, "further orders" would be made.
The pastors vowed afterwards to ignore the VCAT directives, saying they would rather go to jail.
The lawyers are arguing that Higgins overstepped his authority under the law in making the orders.
In a statement, Becket Fund president Seamus Hasson said the two Australians were "victims of a rogue law that tramples on religious freedoms protected by international law."
Rather than promote religious tolerance, he said, the Victorian law "makes people afraid to engage in any genuine dialogue about religious beliefs because someone may end up taking them to court just for having an opinion."
Peter Stokes, director of a Christian ethical action group, Salt Shakers, and a vocal opponent of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, said Tuesday that if the pastors' appeal failed, "the power given to this or any other minority religion to undermine our democracy through the [Victorian] government's flawed legislation, would be overwhelming."
Stokes said Australian Muslims should not try to use the law to "curtail criticism and discussion of their religion."
Earlier this month, opponents of the legislation held a free speech rally outside the state parliament building, handing over a petition urging lawmakers to repeal the law.
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