Pope protest celebrates civil liberties win

Issue 

A spirited rally of 1500 people protesting against the pope's reactionary policies took place on July 19 against the backdrop of an important civil liberties victory in the courts.

"We won the battle in court", Rachel Evans, one of the rally organisers, told the crowd. "This is not just a victory for the NoToPope Coalition (NTPC), or just for the queer community, or just for campaigners for reproductive rights. This is a victory for all protesters."

Evans was referring to the July 15 Federal Court ruling that overturned part of the state Labor government's World Youth Day (WYD) laws that would have made "annoying" Catholic pilgrims during WYD activities a crime punishable by fines of up to $5500.

The laws were part of regulations announced by deputy premier John Watkins on June 28, the last sitting day of parliament before WYD and less than one week after the NoToPope protest was announced. The same regulations banned the "sale or distribution" of a range of items (including condoms and stickers) without approval by the government's WYD authority.

As the NTPC had advertised its intention to distribute condoms and stickers, these regulations directly challenged the right of the protest to go ahead as planned. Evans and Amber Pike from the NTPC, with assistance from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (CCL), responded by launching a legal challenge to the government's regulations.

In ruling on that challenge, the Federal Court interpreted the relevant sections of the regulations to mean that only commercial items required authorisation. It found that all the activities planned by the NTPC fell within the bounds of Australia's implied constitutional right to "free political expression".

NSW CCL president Cameron Murphy addressed the July 19 rally to drive home the importance of this civil liberties victory. He concluded by saying, "Let's all make sure we are as annoying as we can possibly be".

An important aspect of the rally was the participation of several speakers from Broken Rites, a group campaigning for justice for victims of sexual assault within the church.

"We have a role in the gay community, we have a role in society: it is to stand up and speak up with the truth about what's happened in the church and what's been covered up", Broken Rites representative Chris MacIsaac told the rally.

Alex Bainbridge from the Socialist Alliance told the crowd that the Catholic Church hierarchy was waging a "war against sex", whereas what we need is "a war against sexually transmitted diseases". Reverend Karl Hand from the Metropolitan Community Church told protesters, "The rules the pope has made are oppressive and unjust".

"AIDS does not discriminate, but people do", said Allan Preistly from Community Action Against Homophobia. "It doesn't know the difference between men and women, gay or lesbian, white, black or anything. Yet the Vatican is playing russian roulette with our lives."

Rally participants from queer collectives, sex worker rights groups and political organisations such as Resistance, the Socialist Alliance and the Greens then marched the Mardi Gras route from Taylor Square to Moore Park. The march was led by a mock "popemobile" and a banner proclaiming, "The pope is wrong — put a condom on".

In Brisbane, more than 100 people rallied with helium-filled condoms and banners, and heard speakers from the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, pro-choice collectives, the QT queer collective and radio station 4ZZZ.

"We are protesting against the pope's anti-queer, anti-abortion, anti-condom stance", spokesperson Paul Benedek told the Brisbane Times. A speaker from 4ZZZ addressed Queensland's age of consent laws, which discriminate against lesbian and gay youth.

Rhiahnon Kennedy reports that more than 100 people also rallied on the steps of parliament in Melbourne on July 13. The Youth Against World Youth Day event was organised by a coalition of secular groups with endorsements from the Socialist Alliance, Resistance, Community Action Against Homophobia, community radio 3CR and the queer department of the National Union of Students, as well as groups such as Broken Rites and In Good Faith and Associates.

Melbourne protest organiser Jason Ball said the action supported freedom of religion but also the need for the separation of church and state. "We're frustrated by the taxpayer-funded nature of WYD, to the tune of $150 million", he said.

Activists in Perth also held a Youth Against World Youth Day event, collecting signatures and increasing awareness and support for future actions for queer rights, contraception education and abortion rights.