Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A long-running dispute between two Christian city councilors and pagans in Australia is heading for the courts, where the public officials face complaints of vilification under a law which some Christians fear is being used to stifle free speech.
Rob Wilson, the mayor of a city on the edge of Melbourne, will defend himself Thursday before a judge against accusations that he vilified Olivia Watts, a transsexual witch.
The hearing will take place under Victoria's state's Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), a body that operates like a court to settle complaints of discrimination under a 2001 law, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.
Early last year, Watts stood for election for the Casey city council and lost. Several months later, in an article in a local newspaper, she publicly identified herself as a witch.
After the report appeared, Wilson -- a council member, but not mayor at that stage -- issued a press release expressing concern that a series of scandals involving the council "had all the trademarks of being linked to the occult."
Wilson suggested that local Wiccans may have attempted to plant on the council a candidate who was sympathetic to their cause.
The statement, which named Watts, also called on Casey church leaders to hold a special day of prayer about the matter.
Wilson was backed up by another councilor, Brian Oates, who also said people linked to witchcraft may have wanted to get a representative onto the council to push through building permits for facilities for such groups.
Watts subsequently launched legal action against the two under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, saying her life and business -- she worked as a naturopath -- had been ruined.
In a separate action, a national organization called the Pagan Awareness Network (PAN) brought a complaint against Wilson and Oates.
Watts has since dropped her complaint against Oates and is focusing on Wilson. She is receiving help from the state's legal aid fund to take him before the tribunal.
In the other case, the PAN dropped its complaint against Wilson after the mayor agreed to issue a statement saying none of his reported comments were intended to incite fear or hatred. But the network is pursuing the case against Oates, and that hearing has been set for next month.
A number of press reports have claimed that Wilson "outed" Watts as a witch.
Five days before he issued his statement, however, a local newspaper published a report, complete with a full-color picture of Watts, in which she discussed witchcraft and how it was becoming more popular, especially among young people who saw it as a symbol of rebellion against mainstream faiths.
Wilson has declined to speak to the press, but Oates was happy to do so Tuesday.
He said it was ludicrous that the PAN was accusing him of vilifying pagans when it was the network itself that was disseminating the allegedly discriminatory comments.
Not only were they available on the Internet, but the network had also published and distributed flyers in Casey carrying the remarks.
"I would have thought that if somebody was saying things that vilified me and they weren't true, I would certainly be asking for them to be suppressed -- I wouldn't be taking them around to every household."
Oates said the complaint was nothing more than "a publicity stunt" on the pagans' part and said he hoped VCAT would agree to drop it.
According to the tribunal's operating procedures, "if you are a respondent to a complaint and you believe that the complaint is frivolous, vexatious, misconceived, lacking in substance or an abuse of process, you may apply to have the complaint struck out."
Gavin Andrew, coordinator for the PAN in Victoria, said Tuesday the network saw the case as "a very important one for all pagans and followers of other earth-based religions because it will determine whether or not we have the same rights and protections under the law as any other religious group.
"There seems to be a trend towards discrimination and vilification growing within our community," he added.
Asked whether the case had brought pagans welcome publicity, Andrew said that was not the intention.
"Paganism is an umbrella term that covers a number of different earth-based spiritualities," he said. "Most pagans aren't really interested in converting other people to their own beliefs."
Andrew said the PAN was providing Watts with support during her case, which he expected would center around Wilson's press release and the effect it had on her life.
"That press release, in our view, is an extraordinary attack on followers of minority religions, and we feel that the mayor should at the very least be made to apologize [publicly] for making these statements."
In a national census back in 1996, 0.02 percent of Australians describe themselves as pagans, 0.01 percent as Wiccans and another 0.01 percent as followers of "nature religions."
But between 1996 and the next census in 2001, the number identifying themselves as witches grew more than four-fold, while the number calling themselves pagans more than doubled.
When the Racial and Religious Tolerance Bill was first being drafted, many Christians in Victoria raised concern that it could be used to suppress freedom of expression.
In submissions to parliament, some Christian groups argued that offenses such as slander and defamation were already adequately covered by common law provisions.
The law was enacted and came into effect in early 2002. Several months later, critics' concerns were realized when the state's top Islamic body and three individual Muslims brought a complaint against two Christian pastors, accusing them of vilifying Islam during a seminar.
The case ended up in the VCAT, where after hearings were held over many months, a decision is expected within the next month or two.
Oates said Tuesday that he believed the law was introduced with good intent, but he was "concerned about the way it's being used."
"These people have found a loophole, a way to publicize their activities at the general public's expense -- the ratepayers of this city and taxpayers as well."
He complained that the way the anti-discrimination process was working in practice, "you're guilty until you prove yourself innocent."
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