Daring to protest his (un)Holiness

July 26, 2008

To background chants of "The pope is wrong, put a condom on!", protesters crept past the police lines and handed out condoms to the young Catholics streaming into Sydney's Randwick Racecourse for World Youth Day (WYD).

One pilgrim told the latex distributors "I totally support you. Jesus Christ would have been marching with you and not with the pope". She was part of the Christian dissent that on July 19 stood up against the massive spending and conservative politics of the WYD Coordination Authority. She had joined with the NoToPope Coalition to protest Pope Benedict XVI's taxpayer-subsidised circus of reaction. From the outset, the NTPC welcomed the pilgrims but not the reactionary pontiff.

Water cannons and attack dogs, used last time a world leader was in town, during APEC, would not have been a good look for "His Holiness". For WYD, Premier Morris Iemma turned almost the entire CBD into a "declared zone" where Sydneysiders found to be "annoying" or "inconveniencing" pilgrims risked a fine of $5500.

The intent of these regulations — introduced five hours after the NTPC announced its rally and march route — was "thou shall not protest".

Faced with this gross attack, we had no choice but to resist. If Iemma and co. got away with this one, what "legal" obstacles would be put in the path of protesters against toll roads, new coal mines, racist bigotry and all the other crimes of the NSW employing class and its state?

"Neither pope nor premier will stop us", replied the NTPC. An Anglican church near Oxford St , Darlinghurst, placed a sign outside: "Jesus Christ — annoying for 2000 years." The NSW Council for Civil Liberties dubbed NSW a police state and helped take the case against Iemma's laws to the federal court. When the court ruled that the laws violated the right to political communication, the police served NTPC with a notice against holding "offensive banners". But, overwhelmingly backed by public opinion, the NTPC railed against this last attempt to stop our rally, and the police backed down.

Yes, the pope had his right to assemble. But the Catholic Church shouldn't have received a cent of government support for its jamboree.

Fifteen hundred people protested on July 19. Marching to meet the Catholic youth pilgrims was an important aspect of the protest. Police separated protesters from pilgrims, yet chants like "Gay is great, the pope is wrong" brought smiles from many. Predictably, some yelled "faggots", but others picked up the condoms thrown in their direction.

The Socialist Alliance played a key role in bringing together Christians, sex workers, atheists and Raelians within the NTPC in an action that stressed the democratic right to protest and the need to fight for a secular state.

Why should one religious institution be funded from state coffers and others not?

In this country, where the ALP long ago abandoned a principled position on state aid to religious schools and the right to abortion has never been entrenched in law, the struggle for a truly secular state continues. The Christian right fought successfully for same-sex marriage to be banned in 2004. Last year in the ACT it won a ban on civil unions with ceremonies, and in the lead-up to the last federal election fought against "anything that mimicked marriage for same-sex loving couples".

Churches in Australia don't pay tax on their property, businesses or educational institutions. In most states they are not subject to anti-discrimination laws, which prevent ordinary companies from sacking queers or the disabled. As a result, despite the decline in adherence that WYD was designed to reverse, the churches remain rich and privileged.

The peaceful rally on July 19 was significant for its defiance of the anti-protest measures bought in by Iemma. But it was only one step in the campaign for queer rights, women's rights and freedom of speech rights in this country. The next step will be a national day of action for same-sex marriage (go to http://www.caah.org for information).

Join in and help put a permanent prophylactic over the anti-human doctrines of Benedict XVI's church and those in government who still do its bidding!

Rachel Evans

[Sydney West Socialist Alliance member Rachel Evans was a spokesperson for the NoToPope Coalition.]

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