Australian Court Strikes Down Law Banning Anti-Pope Protests

by Gopalan on Jul 15 2008 2:46 PM

A court in Sydney has struck down as unconstitutional a law that effectively banned all anti-Pope demonstrations and gestures.

The judges ruled that the law, which allowed the police to fine people protesting Vatican's stance on various issues, limited free speech. The ruling came as the popular Catholic festival of the World Youth Day opened.

Pope Benedict XVI, currently on a visit to the country, is to address the faithful later in the week. The festival lasts up to July 20.

The New South Wales state law threatened fines of up to A$5,500 (£2,680) against anyone causing "annoyance" to pilgrims.

The law made it illegal to “annoy” pilgrims and defined “annoy” broadly enough to include having signs, or even wearing t-shirts, with messages that the Pope or his followers disapprove of.

The New South Wales state government introduced the regulations for July only, saying they were the same sort of powers authorities normally had to quell potential trouble at big sporting events.

The No to Pope coalition has denounced as unacceptable the current Pope’s utterances on homosexuality, euthanasia, contraception and abortion.

In 1997 a law was passed by federal parliament overturning the legalisation of euthanasia in the Northern Territory, despite 80% of Australians supporting voluntary euthanasia.  Many would like to think Papal pronouncements add strength to such conservative turns in public life.

Besides, the pope, or Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as he was known before becoming “infallible” in 2005, played an active role in the suppression of liberal and anti-imperialist currents within Catholicism in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1981, Ratzinger was appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor to the medieval inquisition) by Pope John Paul II.

Ratzinger used the powers at his disposal — banning from teaching, sacking from the priesthood and excommunication from the Church — to silence those who opposed the drive to extinguish the modernising reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, his critics charge.

They are also angry over the state government’s handout of $86 million to the WYD organizers.

Protesters will  be telling the Catholic Youth - The pope is wrong: Gays are great and condoms save lives, according to a press release, issued by the Coalition that includes Atheists Sydney, Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH), the Socialist Alliance and others.

"This Pope is homophobic and condemns same-sex marriage," says Rachel Evans, one of the spokespersons for the Coalition. "Pope Benedict also condemns millions of people to AIDS via his world-wide anti-condom policy." By calling homosexuality an objective disorder, and saying gay sex is evil, Pope Benedict nurtures bigotry and violence, not love," notes organizer Luke Roberts.

"We will hand out condoms at our rally to young Catholics" said Anthony Englund. "Young Catholic people are quite capable of distinguishing what they want from their church's theology and what they don't want. By providing them with a token number of condoms we're reminding them they can make up their own minds about what they believe is appropriate behavior in terms of their personal sexual health, "he concluded.

Soubhi Iskander, spokeperson from the Sudanese Human Rights Association said "the Pope's policy on condoms is a death sentence for millions within Africa. It is an immoral stance. At the end of 2007, there were approximately 33.2 million people in the world with HIV/AIDS. Over two thirds of these are in sub-Saharan Africa.

More than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981 — 2.1 million in 2007. Almost 70% of people in the Third World who develop AIDS (as opposed to being just HIV positive) will die due to lack of drugs," Iskander concluded.

Reacting to the court ruling, Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell said the church had not asked for the special rules, and had no problem with the right to protest legally.