Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Controversial new hate legislation already being applied against two Australian pastors accused of vilifying Islam, is now being used by a witch who objected to warnings made by elected officials about occult activity.
Christians in the state of Victoria, many of whom opposed the law when it was being drafted, say their fears are being realized: The state's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act is enabling members of one religious group who object to the beliefs of another, to take legal action against them.
Defending accusations of vilification in a special tribunal, which holds hearings under the law, can be costly.
The case involving alleged slurs against Islam, which has run for more than a month and still is not finalized, already has cost the defendants well over $70,000 in legal and other expenses, a source close to the case confirmed Friday.
If the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), which operates like a court, upholds a vilification complaint, it can order the payment of compensation of up to $3,900 for individuals and $19,800 for organizations.
Now a local Christian councilor in a small city on the edge of Melbourne is preparing to defend himself in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal against complaints brought by a witch.
The episode began early this year in Casey, a city of 210,000, when Olivia Watts, a transsexual naturopath, stood as a candidate in city council elections. She was not elected.
Three months later, Watts publicly identified herself as a witch, in an article in a local newspaper.
Soon thereafter, city councilor Rob Wilson issued a statement in which he named Watts, raising concerns that local Wiccans may have been involved in a plan to plant someone on the council who was sympathetic to their cause.
Wilson attributed recent scandals in the council to the influence of such elements, saying the incidents had "all the hallmarks of being linked to the occult."
He urged a local grouping of church leaders to hold a special day of prayer against "the forces of evil."
Casey's mayor, Brian Oates - also a Christian - then backed up Wilson, suggesting that people with links to witchcraft may have wanted to get an agent elected to the council, in order to push through building permit for facilities for such groups.
Wilson and Oates pointed to an earlier, failed attempt by a "Satanic cult" to get permission to build a "place of worship" in an adjoining area.
After the local media reported on Wilson's statement, Watts launched legal action against him, the mayor, and the Casey council. She has since removed the mayor and council from the complaint, focusing on Wilson alone.
In a separate action, a national organization called the Pagan Awareness Network (PAN) brought a complaint against Wilson and Oates.
Wilson declined to be interviewed on the grounds that the legal process was now underway in the VCAT.
However, Watts agreed Friday to speak briefly to CNSNews.com , but not about the merits of the case now before the tribunal.
She said after Wilson made his statement last June, vandals left graffiti and threw stones at the windows of her home. A man had arrived at her door and "decided he was going to drive demons out of me ... it was terrifying."
Asked what she wanted to achieve, Watts said she sought "an apology and an acknowledgment that I have the legal, moral, ethical, social right to follow an ancient and beautiful faith without being accused of evil."
She confirmed she was getting "limited" financial assistance from a state legal aid fund to pursue her case.
Watts said she had decided for "a very good reason" to drop the mayor and council from the complaint and concentrate on Wilson, but wouldn't elaborate.
PAN president David Garland said in a phone interview that after his group became aware of the situation in Casey, he had written to the Victoria state government to complain.
Victoria Attorney-General Rob Hulls responded, suggesting the complainants take their case up with authorities under the new vilification laws.
Hulls had also assured the pagan network that "we govern for all Victorians - and that includes witches, magicians and sorcerers."
Garland said the network did not want to get money out the Casey councilors, but merely wanted an apology.
"We see using the [state legal apparatus] as wielding a stick. We'll bash them with the stick until they listen. I don't care what their personal opinions are, I don't care if they don't change their minds, but I want them to think before they open their mouths ... especially as paid public officials."
Robert Ward, a pastor in Casey who also serves as a chaplain to the city council, told CNSNews.com the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act was turning out to be "an absolute farce."
"I've no problem with a law that guarantees mutual respect and prevents people from being vilified or persecuted," he said. "But I think our common law, our slander law, already does that."
Ward said the anti-vilification law "can be used by anybody whose got an ax to grind, anybody who wants to make a name for themselves and is prepared to go through the motions."
"People are starting to think: 'What can I say?' As a Christian, we would say that Jesus is the only way to the Father. If somebody feels vilified by that because they feel differently, am I going to get dragged into court?"
Religious discussion is meant to be exempt from the anti-vilification law, but "doesn't seem to be in practice."
Ward said he doubted Watts' complaint would succeed, but pointed out that while it costs complainant very little to bring a case, it was costly for defendants. Because Wilson made his statement on behalf of himself as an individual councilor, the city is not covering his costs.
A spokeswoman for the state commission that oversees the anti-vilification laws, Slavka Scott, said the aim of the process was to achieve conciliation between the parties before a case reached the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
If the commission decides that the complaint has substance, it attempts to mediate between the parties, looking for a mutually acceptable conclusion, she said.
If that fails, the case goes to the tribunal. Alternatively, if the commission feels the complaint is groundless but the complaining party disagrees, it can in any case take the defendant to the tribunal.
Asked about costs, Scott said there was no requirement for legal representation before a case reached the tribunal stage.
Nonetheless, the city of Casey has run up costs. By the time Watts dropped her complaint against the council, it had already cost ratepayers almost $11,000 in legal fees, council CEO Mike Tyler told CNSNews.com .
"An allegation of religious vilification is pretty serious and we had to defend the council's reputation if it was going to be dragged into this."
Now that Watts had dropped the council from her complaint, Tyler said it was applying to VCAT to recover costs that it had already incurred.
Witchcraft vs. Satanism
Ironically, Victoria is the only one of Australia's six states and two territories where witchcraft is still illegal and punishable by a fine.
Hulls, the state's attorney-general, announced earlier this year that the law outlawing "witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or fortune telling" would be scrapped soon.
"Offences for witchcraft and fortune telling are virtually never used in practice and are out of place in a culturally diverse and tolerant society," he said in a statement.
According to national census statistics in 1996, 0.02 percent of Australians describe themselves as "Pagans," 0.01 percent put down "Wicca," another 0.01 percent indicated "Nature religions," and a further 0.01 percent "Satanism."
One of the key complaints being made by the witchcraft practitioners is that Wilson associated them with Satanists.
In pamphlets distributed in Casey, PAN says "witches don't support the devil or even believe in the devil."
It also says that spells cast by witches are "a means of achieving a desired effect," not unlike prayer or meditation. They are not used to do harm, it claims.
Ward, the Casey pastor, said that for Christians, witchcraft was a very serious, "dark versus light kind of issue."
"Some of the distinctions between witchcraft and Satanism aren't as distinct as they would have us believe, from a Christian perspective."
He said witchcraft and "the whole New Age mix" was becoming increasingly acceptable nowadays.
"Whereas once upon a time people would have reacted fairly strongly to the suggestion that their next-door neighbor was a witch, now it's almost smiled at."
"I don't hate witches," Ward added. "I disagree with their practices and beliefs, but the people, we love."
See earlier stories:
Australian Embassy Deals With Concerns About Religious Vilification Case (Oct. 29, 2003)
Australian Muslims Take Pastors to Court over 'Vilification' (Sept. 16, 2003)
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