SYDNEY — The Sydney archbishop has strongly defended the freedom of the Catholic Church in response to a legal complaint claiming the Australian bishops’ pastoral letter on marriage violated Tasmania’s strict anti-discrimination law.
“Australia is party to treaties guaranteeing freedoms of religion and of speech and regularly exhorts other nations to observe these,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said Nov. 13.
“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,” he continued.
“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.”
The legal complaint targeted Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, Tasmania, and the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference as a whole. The bishops’ conference had authored “Don’t Mess With Marriage,” a pastoral letter issued May 28.
The pastoral letter was sent home with students of Catholic high schools in several archdioceses, including Hobart. It stressed both respect for all and respect for the unique nature of marriage as a union of man and a woman. It also rejected claims that current Australian law and Catholic teaching on marriage wrongly discriminate.
On Nov. 12, Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commissioner said it would investigate the complaint. The following week, the archbishop agreed to go through a conciliation process to address the complaint. The complaint was filed by Martine Delaney, an “LGBT” activist and 2016 candidate for the Australian Greens party for the country’s federal House of Representatives.
“I’ve sought an apology and for the Catholic education system to involve itself in LGBTI awareness for students,” Delaney said, according to Australia’s Sky News.
Delaney, who identifies as transgender, charged that the booklet was inappropriate and acted to marginalize same-sex couples and their families.
The Sydney Archdiocese said the complaint was filed in Tasmania because of its unique anti-discrimination law. The law bars conduct that could reasonably be anticipated to offend, humiliate, insult or ridicule another person on the basis of several categories, including sexual orientation.
The move comes ahead of an expected national plebiscite on the definition of marriage.
Archbishop Porteous, in a Nov. 13 statement, said he distributed the booklet to help Catholics understand Church teaching “at a time when debate on this matter was widespread within the community.”
“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.”
He said it was not his intention to offend. “I regret if offense has been taken by individuals and will work with the commission to resolve this matter,” he said.
After agreeing to conciliation, the archbishop said he wanted to “see if we can find a way forward.”
In reaction to the complaint, Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman told parliament that current legislation might need revision to ensure that all viewpoints can be expressed, the Australian Associated Press reports.
Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, speaking at a forum at the Australian Catholic University in October, said the law should be changed to avoid similar complaints.
Professor Michael Quinlan, dean of law at University of Notre Dame-Australia’s Sydney campus, said that the complaint could have a chilling effect.
“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.”
On Nov. 12, Sen. Eric Abetz proposed a motion in the federal parliament to support the Catholic Church’s right to distribute the pamphlet. A vote on the motion was blocked by members of the Labor and Greens parties. LGBT activists have previously filed a complaint concerning the booklet. In June 2015, Randy Croome, national director of the same-sex marriage advocacy group Australian Marriage Equality, claimed the booklet is illegal under Tasmanian law.
Archbishop Fisher on Nov. 13 said he was consoled by statements of support from Catholics and other people of goodwill: “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.”