The move to jail those who pray outside abortion clinics

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There are a few frightening developments occurring in Victoria at the moment. A couple of weeks ago, the Victorian Government announced that Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes would no longer be held during class hours, and instead will need to take place during the lunch break or after school.

A media release from the office of Premier Daniel Andrews said that those who did not participate in SRI were missing out on essential learning time, and declared that the move would free up 30 minutes of valuable class time per week.

I would have been prepared to accept that comment at face value, if Mr Andrews didn’t then buy into the Gayby Baby discussion a week later.

[For those who missed it, around 50 NSW high schools had scheduled a screening of Gayby Baby, a documentary about the experience of children raised by same-sex couples, during school hours, as part of a day to “celebrate” their LGBQTI peers. After complaints were received, NSW Education Minister Andrew Piccoli stepped in and instructed schools that the film could not be shown during class time, and instead should be shown after school.]

Mr Andrews publicly criticised the decision, saying that it was “cruel rubbish”.

The message is clear: interrupting classes for SRI is a waste of valuable learning time, but showing a film like Gayby Baby is an act of support for our same-sex attracted young people. Religion bad and deserving of being pushed into the margins. LGBQTI good and deserving of compulsory celebration.

Then last week, the Victorian government announced that it would support a move by the Sex Party to establish exclusion zones around abortion clinics, and any other location which provides advice, medication and treatment in respect of reproductive “health”.

The final details are still to be worked out, but the draft legislation put before the Victorian Parliament last week gives us some reasons to be gravely concerned.

For example, it will be illegal to “interfere with” a footpath within 150 metres of an abortion clinic.

It will also be illegal to communicate in relation to reproductive health services in a manner that is able to be seen or heard by a person accessing the premises.

This would include offering assistance to pregnant women – either by having a conversation, handing out information or even by advertising on a billboard which can be seen from the clinic.

Those who regularly pray outside abortion clinics all have stories of speaking to women who feel as if they have no other choice, and who have decided to keep their baby after being offered financial, medical or other assistance. But in Victoria, in the name of “a woman’s right to choose”, women will now be deprived of the ability to hear that there is help on offer and that there are choices available to them.

And while the penalties are currently being considered, the draft legislation includes fines in excess of $75,000 and up to 12 months’ imprisonment.

Those who are pushing for this law to pass conjure up images of frightened women who must run a gauntlet of protesters waving images of aborted babies and screaming “murderer” at them while they try to access the clinic.

They say the moves are necessary to protect these women.

As anyone who has participated in one of these vigils knows well, this is far from the truth. I know that during Sydney’s 40 Days for Life we stand across the street, in a circle facing each other, with our heads bowed in prayer.

But even if you haven’t seen it for yourself, the story just doesn’t add up because there are already laws in Victoria which make this type of behaviour illegal.

The Crimes Act 1958 makes it illegal to follow a person, to use abusive or offensive words, to give or show them offensive material, or acting in any other way which could reasonably be expected to cause fear, physical or mental harm (including self-harm) in a person.

There is only one conclusion available here. These laws are not punishing behaviours, but opinions, because there are already laws in place to punish bad behaviour.

Let me use a couple of examples to illustrate.

I could stand outside a childhood vaccination clinic in Victoria, telling parents going in that they should not vaccinate their children. I could hold signs, hand them pamphlets, and even use a megaphone to announce my anti-vax message. I could offer advice about natural alternatives, and I could do it all day every day.

I could also stand outside a politician’s office, holding a prayer vigil for refugees.

Provided I was obeying the law in other respects, this would be perfectly legal.

But if I dared to do the same outside an abortion clinic, I could find myself with a $75,000 fine and 12 months in prison.

It is not my actions which would be punishable, but the reason I was doing them.

This is incredibly serious. It is an attack on the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion which has long been a recognised human right, and it is being done in the name of the non-existent “right” to abortion.

What is more disquieting is that it looks like it will occur without any serious opposition.

While all of our political leaders need our prayers, maybe we should all hold the Victorian politicians in prayer especially. Because at this rate, it is fast becoming Australia’s capital of religious oppression.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited the Crimes Act 1958 (Victoria). While the NSW Crimes Act makes intimidation illegal, it is not specified in the Victorian legislation.