Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP Speaks Out on Attempts to Shut Down Freedom of Speech

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
13 Nov 2015

The Pastoral Letter from the Catholic Bishops of Australia

Catholics, like the overwhelmingly majority of Australians, support the freedom of religion and speech, the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP said today.

His comments followed news that the Archbishop of Hobart, the Most Rev Julian Porteous DD, has received notification from the Office of the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner that a complaint made about him has been viewed as a possible breach of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

The complaint concerns the distribution of a statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops, Don't Mess With Marriage, to all Catholic schools in Tasmania. The Australian Bishops as author of the booklet has also been named as a respondent.

"Australia is party to treaties guaranteeing freedoms of religion and of speech, and regularly exhorts other nations to observe these," Archbishop Fisher said.

"It is therefore astonishing and truly alarming that people might be proceeded against for stating traditional Christian beliefs on marriage.

"Fair-minded readers of the bishops' statement on marriage would see it was a very carefully worded and indeed compassionate statement, not designed to provoke or hurt anyone. The concerted campaign that has followed its publication suggests that some people simply cannot tolerate Christian beliefs being held by anyone, spoken by anyone, influencing anyone.

Archbishop of Hobart, the Most Rev Julian Porteous

"As Archbishop of Sydney I'm consoled by the many statements of support received not only from Catholics but from other people of good will, including leaders of other religions. I intend to keep speaking up for Christian beliefs, always respectfully, never with prejudice or hatred; I hope our democracy will treat me with the same courtesy."

Following the distribution of the booklet , Australian Marriage Equality Director Rodney Croome issued a media release encouraging complaints under Tasmania's Anti-Discrimination Act.  "The booklet likely breaches the Anti-Discrimination Act and I urge everyone who finds it offensive and inappropriate, including teachers, parents and students, to complain to the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Robin Banks," he said.

At the end of September, Tasmanian Greens candidate Martine Delaney did just that, lodging a complaint with the Anti-Discrimination Commission against Hobart's Archbishop Julian Porteous and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

The reason that the complaint was lodged in Tasmania is because its anti-discrimination law is unique in that it prohibits conduct which could be reasonably be anticipated to offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule another person on the basis of, among other items, sexual orientation. 

Commenting on the complaint at a forum hosted by the Australian Catholic University last month, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson said that the Tasmanian law needs to be fixed so that these types of complaints cannot be invited.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP

"The example with Archbishop Porteous is a very good, concrete one because the issue at hand is the law.  It is not actually the person making the complaint," he said.  "They are only taking advantage of the law that exists in Tasmania."

On Thursday, Archbishop Porteous received notification that the complaint against him and the Bishops' Conference would proceed to an investigation.  The Australian reported that the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission cited the Bishops' Conference as the "prime mover."

Tasmania's Anti-Discrimination Commissioner will now investigate the matter through written evidence, submissions and witness statements from Ms Delaney, the Australian Catholic Bishops and others.  The investigation could take up to 6 months to complete, or longer if Ms Delaney agrees.  At its conclusion, the complaint will either be dismissed, be referred for conciliation or proceed to a tribunal hearing.  While all parties have indicated a willingness to conciliate, Commissioner Banks said this was unlikely to lead to a resolution.

To resolve the matter, Ms Delaney is seeking the introduction an LGBTI awareness program for all staff and students within the Catholic education system, as well as a public apology from Australia's Bishops.

Archbishop Porteous issued a brief statement today:

"In distributing the Pastoral Letter, 'Don't Mess With Marriage', my aim was to assist the Catholic community in understanding the teaching of the Catholic Church, at a time when debate on this matter was widespread within the community," he said.

"The intention was to inform the debate as leader of the Catholic Church in Tasmania, to ensure the Catholic community understood where we stand on the issue of marriage.

"It was not my intention to offend, rather, it was and is, to express the teaching of the Catholic Church. I regret if offence has been taken by individuals, and will work with the Commission to resolve this matter."

Dean of Law at the Sydney campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia, Professor Michael Quinlan called the news that an investigation would proceed disappointing.  "Marriage is a very important institution in Australia and an environment in which a full and frank exchange of ideas cannot take place is in no one's interest," said Professor Quinlan.  "If even Catholic Bishops are unable to write to parishioners and parents and students studying in Catholic schools, setting out their views on marriage without fear of prosecution, it is hard to see how the rest of the country can discuss the issues ahead of the plebiscite which has been foreshadowed." 

Martine Delaney, complainant and Greens Candidate

He also commented that the development was concerning in light of Tasmania's constitution which guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

International lawyer and Chairman and Founder of the Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty, Rocco Mimmo said it was a test of the right to free speech.  He also called it an attack on the Catholic Church. 

"It is indicative of all the things that are wrong with discrimination laws in Australia that sincerely held beliefs which are in accord with the general law are prohibited from being expressed in order to satisfy individual feelings rather than matters of genuine belief or matters of law," Mr Mimmo said.  "The Catholic Church like every other religious organisation has the right under international law has the right to manifest their genuinely held beliefs and the manifestation of these beliefs in no way are directed at or intended to or offend other belief systems or other personal issues."

The Bishops' Conference have 21 days in which to provide a response to the Commissioner.

In Federal Parliament on Thursday, Senator Eric Abetz sought to have a motion passed in the Senate which, while not expressing a view on the contents of the booklet, would have supported the right of the Catholic Church to distribute it.  A vote on the motion was blocked by Labor and the Greens, who joined together to defeat it.

"My hope is that commonsense will prevail at the conciliation stage," Archbishop Fisher said.

Archbishop Porteous speaking in Hobart today