Aust cases 1
Aust cases 2
& Free Speech
Australian blasphemy cases
This pages considers blasphemy cases and controversies in
It covers -
In considering Australian prosecutions for blasphemy
since the 1780s we can differentiate between
handful of cases concerned with print publications, films
and visual artworks
much larger of instances of 'bad language', prosecuted under
summary offences or other public order legislation.
The 'major cases' have attracted media, government and scholarly
attention and agitation by advocacy groups. Arguably they
have often derived from overseas models, with local provocateurs,
zealots and 'concerned citizens' emulating excitement in London,
New York or other cultural centres.
In contrast, day by day profanity - particularly among workingclass
males - has been largely unremarked by the mass media. It
has attracted academic attention primarily in relation to
questions of civility, class, gender and national identity.
The number of warnings, fines or short-term prison sentences
imposed by magistrates for "misusing The Lord's name"
or other blasphemous speech has not been tabulated and patterns
in offences over the past 220 years are thus unclear.
In relation to 'major cases' during that period there appears
to have been a shift from prosecutions initiated by the state
to those initiated by individuals or advocacy groups. It is
difficult to escape the sense that in recent years attempts
to launch prosecutions have
aimed at strengthening the identity of particular affinity
groups (portrayed to members as surrounded by a "sea
of immorality" of facing discrimination not encountered
by other faiths) rather than changing society at large
to secure media attention for (and thereby increase or sustain
the membership base of) small advocacy groups and their
necessarily had the support of major religious groups or
a largely indifferent audience.
William Lorando Jones
The 1871 prosecution in NSW of William Lorando Jones featured
the charge that
a wicked and evil disposed person, and disregarding the
laws and religion of the said colony, wickedly, profanely,
devisedly, and intending to bring the Holy Scriptures and
the Christian religion into disrepute and contempt among
the people of the said colony, and to blaspheme God unlawfully
and wickedly, and blasphemously in the presence and hearing
of divers subjects of our lady the Queen, [he] spoke and
pronounced, and with a loud voice published ... profane
and blasphemous words ... to the high displeasure of Almighty
God, to the great scandal and reproach of the Christian
religion, to the evil example of all others in the like
case offending, and against the peace of Our Lady the Queen,
her Crown and Dignity
was convicted - with a £100 fine - for claims that the
Bible was "the most immoral book that ever has been published"
and "not a fit book for any female to read", that
the children of Israel murdered the Egyptians, that Elisha
"murdered a number of priests of Baal by his God's authority"
and that Moses "saved 40,000 Midianitish women to make
them prostitute to his soldiers".
Mr Jones, however imprudent, had been reading his Old Testament
and in retrospect his claims - albeit expressed with some
emotion - echo comments made by biblical scholars since at
least the 1850s. Jones was not, however, lecturing in the
theology faculty at Gottingen, Heidelberg or Cambridge to
a learned audience: statements to the lower orders in Parramatta
were less acceptable.
Robert Ross and bolsheviks in heaven
Fifty years later authorities appear to have used a blasphemy
prosecution to crimp outspoken Australian rationalist and
socialist Robert Samuel Ross (1873-1931). Ross was a pioneering
Left journalist and union advocate. From 1911 to 1913 he had
served as editor of the Wellington Maoriland Worker,
which as noted on the preceding page of this profile was later
prosecuted for Sassoon's 'blasphemous' antiwar poem
As publisher of Ross's Monthly - a Left counterpart
Weekly - he was taken to court in 1919 for the offence
of sending blasphemous material through the post in seeking
to "vilify Almighty God and bring the Holy Scriptures
and Christian religion in contempt among the people".
The item of concern was a satire spoofing contemporary yellow
journalism, with bolsheviks ransacking heaven, torturing the
angels and rolling their own cigarettes with pages torn from
the Book of Judgement.
Ross was initially declared guilty of a "vile and indecent
attack on Christian Religion", with a sentence of six
months hard labour, but survived the hysteria to become a
member of the Council of Melbourne University, trustee of
the National Gallery and Commissioner of the State Savings
Bank of Victoria.
lead us not into Temptation
Greater wariness about government involvement in prosecutions
was evident in more recent responses to films and theatrical
productions that satirised or - perhaps more threateningly
- respected religious belief.
Denunciations from the pulpit of the musicals Godspell
and Jesus Christ Superstar - arguably offences against
good taste rather than the deity - were muted and appear to
have been largely treated as wowserism. There was a more visceral
response to Monty Python's Life of Brian, Scorsese's
The Last Temptation, Hail Mary and Terence
McNally's Corpus Christi.
Terry Gilliam subsequently commented
kind of church is this, that my feeble little jokes are
going to threaten its belief? With Life of Brian
we were vilified ... Yet Christianity is alive and well.
Come on, if your religion is so vulnerable that a little
bit of disrespect is going to bring it down, it's not worth
believing in, frankly.
Dr Peter Carnley, Anglican Archbishop of Perth, stated that
the Last Temptation was not blasphemous. Fred Nile
in contrast commented
I was convinced that the film The Last Temptation of
Christ was an anti-Christ film made by Satan Productions
in the Studios of Hell!
much of Australia disagreed with Mr Nile.
of Corpus Christi in Melbourne during 2001 attracted
minor picketing, with protests arguably increasing the box
office. A Melbourne critic commented that McNally's drama
not interrogate or challenge the Christian doctrine. It
offers instead a thoughtful, in many ways reverent interpretation
of the familiar story. It powerfully affirms the central
message of Christ’s teaching, in a marvellous and
quietly affecting work
religious leaders took a different view, claiming that it
and perverted, another assault on the traditions and restraints
that hold decent pluralist societies together
criticism reflects a shift in rhetoric, with increasing use
of appeals to 'pluralism' in suppressing ideas that are unpopular
among some parts of the community.
Pell, Serrano and the NGV
Justice Harper of the Supreme Court of Victoria refused to
grant an injunction - in Pell v Council of Trustees of
the National Gallery of Victoria - to prevent opening
of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. The
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne sought that restriction
on the basis that Andres Serano's Piss Christ artwork
was blasphemous, contravening section 17(1)(b) of the Summary
Offences Act 1966 (Vic).
The Gallery's QC drily noted that the image was already accessible
through books and a recent ABC television series by noted
art historian Robert Hughes.
Justice Harper commented that there it was unnecessary to
rule on whether the law of blasphemy existed in Victoria,
refusing the injunction on the technical grounds that a civil
court will not exercise criminal jurisdiction and will not
restrain what may or may not be a legal act by using a civil
remedy such as an injunction.
His opinion was that Australia "need not bother with
blasphemous libel" as a multicultural and tolerant society,
noting that blasphemous libel was an anachronism of English
history from a time when the State was intrinsically linked
with an established Church (a relationship not recognised
in Victoria and prohibited by section 116 of the federal Constitution).
Harper noted that 'blasphemous libel' - if in existence in
Victoria - protects only Christian religions (of potential
concern to Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish or other faiths). In
suggesting that it would have to be shown that the exhibition
raised the risk of a breach of the peace, including widespread
social unrest he found that there was no evidence before him
of any unrest of any kind.
There is a persuasive analysis in 'Pell v Council
of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria: Should Blasphemy
be a Crime? The ‘Piss Christ’ Case and Freedom
of Expression' by Bede Harris in 22 Melbourne University Law Review (1998)
Agitation against the gallery is consistent with perceptions
across the globe that publicly-funded institutions are 'soft
targets' that will often give surrender if attacked with vigour
by an extremist with a nose for publicity.
The Victorian experience, for example, was echoed in a 2005
prosecution in Greece of curator Christos Ioakimidis for displaying
Thierry de Cordier's painting Dry Sin in the 2003
government-endorsed Outlook exhibition. Ioakimidis
was charged with insulting public sentiment and the Orthodox
Church, following a complaint by a far-right politico George
Perkins and van der Linden
In 2004 David Perkins for the fundamentalist 'Catch the Fire
Ministries', argued in the Victorian Civil & Administrative
Tribunal (VCAT) that
Quran contradicts Christian doctrine in a number of places
and, under the blasphemy law, is therefore illegal
to vilification litigation under the Victorian Racial
& Religious Tolerance Act 2001 he claimed that "Australia's
blasphemy law was intended to protect only Christianity"
and that action to curb the teaching of Christian doctrine
In the same vein he is reported
as arguing that
law refers to "lawful religion," which disqualifies
Islam, because it preaches violence
is a curious proposition, given the OT emphasis on "righteous
anger" and the history of many sects over two millennia.
Representatives of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths responded
in a tart open letter -
reality is that the legislation has started to expose some
of the activities of religious extremist and race hate groups
in Victoria. They would prefer to be able to scuttle about
in private misuse of the right to religious freedom, to
prey on fears and anxiety that exist in parts of Victorian
religious communities, inciting hatred and hostility to
those of other faiths or races. It would be a mistake to
repeal legislation that makes extremist groups uncomfortable
and holds them to account
June 2005 Judge Michael Higgins ordered the Catch the Fire
defendants to print an apology on their website and newsletter
and in four advertisements each in The Age and Herald
Sun - using words ordered by the tribunal - and not to
repeat the vilification. They appealed, with the Victorian
Supreme Court returning the case to VCAT which announced in
2007 that a confidential out-of-court agreement had been reached
by the ICV, Catch the Fire Ministries, Danny Nalliah and Daniel
Supporters of the legislation commented that believers can
discuss other faiths, quote religious texts, debate the merits
or otherwise of other religious beliefs but not misrepresent
other faiths for the purposes of vilification or incite hatred
and violence towards other religions (whether based on accurate
readings of their texts or not).
Catch the Fire has subsequently gained attention for absurdities
such as claims that Australian "moral decline" was
responsible for drought (an unhappy God punishes sinners and
sinless alike by withholding the rain) and controversy over
Nalliah's address to the antisemitic League of Rights.
The Catch the Fire dispute is discussed in the valuable Hate
Speech & Freedom of Speech in Australia (Leichhardt:
Federation Press 2007) edited by Katherine Gelber & Adrienne
2004 also saw action by Andre van der Linden, claiming that
use of 'Jesus Christ' as a swearword in television drama Prime
Suspect breached the federal broadcasting code and state
The Australian Broadcasting Authority referred to community
standards in dismissing the complaint (PDF),
consistent with studies about community expectations and everyday
use of such language.
In June 2008 a 16 year old Gold Coast teenager was charged
with offensive behaviour under the Summary Offences Act
2005 (Qld). As noted elsewhere
on this site that legislation allows action against "offensive
performance or other public nuisance and is not specifically
concerned with blasphemy.
The offender had been spotted by police while walking down
the road wearing a "extreme metal band" Cradle of
Filth t-shirt that read "Jesus is a c**t" and depicted
a masturbating nun.
(Australian sacrilege cases)