A transgender activist is trying to silence the Catholic Church in the Australian state of Tasmania on the issues of homosexuality, transgender, and same-sex marriage.

Martine Delaney, who will be a Greens candidate for the next Federal election, has lodged a complaint with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission over a booklet produced by Australia’s Catholic bishops, “Don’t Mess with Marriage”. It was distributed in Tasmania by the Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, to the parents of students in Catholic schools. The two parties have just announced that they wil attend a conciliation conference. 

In a lengthy press release Ms Delaney said that the booklet only pays lip service to respect for same-sex-attracted Australians by insisting that they should be treated with “respect, sensitivity, and love”. But she interprets these as weasel words. She says:

“Despite the assertion it’s respectful, this booklet says same-sex partners don’t deserve equal recognition, same-sex-attracted people are not ‘whole’ people and the children of same-sex partners are not ‘healthy’.

“By spreading this message, the Church does immeasurable harm to the wellbeing of same-sex couples and their families across Tasmania and the nation – particularly those who are students, teachers or parents within the Catholic education system.”

Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act was amended in 2012 (when the Greens Party was the junior partner in a coalition government with the Labor Party) and became the harshest in the nation. Under its controversial Section 17, offending, humiliating or insulting another person because of sexual orientation is prohibited.

Ms Delaney says that the booklet offends, humiliates and insults same-sex attracted people and their children.

How? “Respect, sensitivity, and love” sound more like love-bombing than vilification. That doesn’t matter in Tasmania. The test is whether Ms Delaney feels offended, not whether the offense is reasonable. In fact, turning up the dial on respect, sensitivity, and love could be construed as being offensively condescending.

“Don’t Mess with Marriage” is a carefully phrased, sober presentation of traditional Catholic teaching on homosexuality. So it’s not a matter of removing insulting phrases: there aren’t any. So if Ms Delaney’s complaint succeeds, Archbishop Porteous has three options: to preach acceptance of homosexuality, to say absolutely nothing about homosexuality, or to suffer the penalties imposed by the government.

All because Ms Delaney feels offended. And not reasonably offended, either. Here is what has insulted her.

The booklet refers to “same-sex friendships” but denies that there can be same-sex conjugal unions. “I can think of few more negative and demoralising messages than to be told you have no hope of a lifelong, loving union,” Delaney says. “It is far worse than to be called a derogatory term based on your sexuality or gender identity.” If an idea which gives her a headache is worse than spiteful language, free speech is really in trouble. 

The booklet says that the complementary union of a man and a woman makes them “whole”. “This obviously implies same-sex attracted people can never be whole people, “ says Delaney. Actually, it is not “obvious” at all. Eleven people form a whole soccer team, five a basketball team. The fact that a basketball team can never play as a soccer team does not imply that the basketballers are not “whole people”.

The booklet states that marriage is “the nursery of healthy, well rounded virtuous citizens” and research shows that a mother and a father are necessary for a child’s development. Once again, Ms Delaney finds offense in her own inferences, not in the words of the booklet. She writes: “These statements are offensive, humiliating and insulting to the children of same-sex couples, because together they say these children are not as healthy, virtuous or as well developed as other children, simply because of the gender of their parents.”

The booklet states that marriage is “fundamental good, a foundation of human existence” and that it is associated with “social stability”. Delaney’s deconstruction of this is hilarious: “It demonises us”. If this is the case, perhaps she should drag the United Nations before the Anti-Discrimination Commission because of the offense, humiliation and insult implied in  Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Men and women of full age … have the right to marry and to found a family.”

And, finally, when Ms Delaney fails to unearth objectively offensive language in the booklet, she appeals to what that eminent Melbourne jurist Danny Denuto, of the film “The Castle”, called “the vibe… of the thing” – “the booklet only states it is respectful. The overall message in the booklet is exactly the opposite”.

Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act is seriously flawed, as even Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre acknowledged when it was amended in 2012. It said that “the words ‘offends’ and ‘insults’ are too low a threshold for vilification laws like these”. If Ms Delaney succeeds, it will be a blow to free speech throughout Australia.

The New South Wales Minister for Finance, Dominic Perrottet, had advice for Archbishop Porteous: “He should stop apologising. This is his point of view and no one else has to agree with him. He should not regret saying it just because some people have chosen to take offence. If they disagree, they should engage in debate. That is how free societies work.”

An adverse judgement by the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal could even cripple Australia’s upcoming debate on same-sex marriage. “The position outlined by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference is the position that had been taken by every leader of the two major political parties right up until last year – and it is now potentially illegal,” says Simon Breheny, of the Institute of Public Affairs. “The legitimacy of the result in the upcoming plebiscite depends upon the existence of a free and open debate. Both sides must have the opportunity to present a case to the Australian people,”

What can the Catholic Church in Tasmania do?

Fight Ms Delaney in the courts, obviously.

But if this fails, there is the nuclear option: a counter-strike against MONA, the recently-opened Museum of Old and New Art, which has quickly become the second most popular tourist attraction in Tasmania, thanks in part to the enthusiastic support of the state government.

MONA’s mission is to be is offensive, “a subversive adult Disneyland”, as its founder, gambler David Walsh has described it. And one of the main pieces in his collection is “The Holy Virgin Mary” by Chris Ofili, a British artist. New York’s former mayor Rudi Giuliani described it as “sick” and “disgusting”, which it is.

The Madonna is surrounded by butterflies which, on closer inspection, are photographs of female genitalia. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast. Surely this falls under Section 19 of the Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits “hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of … religious belief or affiliation or religious activity”. To anyone in the Catholic tradition, “The Holy Virgin Mary” constitutes “severe ridicule”.

Archbishop Porteous should see whether the Anti-Discrimination Commission has the courage to be even-handed in enforcing the state’s absurdly draconian law.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet