In a victory for free speech and the freedom to criticise religious crimes, the NSW Police were today forced to withdraw their charges against the builder of the fake Popemobile. Mr Ian Bryce said the police campaign against him seemed to have more to do with suppressing criticism of religion than with road safety.

A team from the Secular Party of Australia, of which Mr Bryce is Vice President, built the Popemobile, then on top of a car, as protest against the visit of the real Pope for World Youth Day in July 2008. It drove around Sydney in one form or another for 7 days, to the acclamation of 90% of people who saw it. Only a few appeared offended.

Most police who saw it then gave a friendly wave, but one Highway Patrol man seemed determined to end the protest. After trying several offences he defected the vehicle, putting it off the road, and issued a fine for ‘having a roof ornament likely to distract motorists’. There being no such rule, it was suspected that religious motivation played a part.

Lawyers from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties attempted to get police to specify the charge. It was only on entry to court today [27 April 2009], after 9 months, that they provided their Statement, and changed the charge to Clause 21, which states that no vehicle shall “cause danger or unreasonable annoyance to any person”. The Statement also refers to the bumper sticker saying ‘Sponsor a Lion for World Youth Day – 300,000 Christians in one stadium’, and the sign saying ‘Eat my dust Chaser’.

The basis for the annoyance was stated – the signage on the vehicle, which included the revelation that the current Pope was for 25 years the Prefect (ie Head) of the former Office of the Inquisition (now called Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). He has said “The Inquisition represented progress”. The Police statement also complains that the sign also showed a replica of a medieval torture instrument, ie a rack – similar to those used by the Church to encourage witnesses to assist them in their enquiries, during the Inquisition covering much of Europe, over many centuries.

The Police Statement argues that this was “annoying” to the thousands of pilgrims conducting a ‘Stations of the Cross march’ to North Sydney Oval where Mr Bryce was apprehended. Mr Bryce was ready to argue that the Church causes greater ‘annoyance’ to the millions of children in Africa who have inherited AIDS due to the Churches ban on condoms, and who are starving because of overpopulation due to the Pope’s opposition to family planning.

With this change from a safety issue to a free speech issue, a regrouping was called for. Fortunately it was the same NSW CCL who in July overturned the World Youth Day Regulation making it an offence to ‘annoy or inconvenience’ a pilgrim. After lengthy discussions outside the courtroom, the Police Prosecutor decided to withdraw the charges.

The Popemobile has also appeared in the Mardi Gras Parade with the slogan ‘Equal Rights for All’. It then contained a live Pope , trying to contact his ‘invisible friend’ with a gold telephone, and quoted Benedict “Homosexuality is as much a threat to humankind as climate change”.

Mr Bryce said that while he was disappointed the police were able to severely curtail the Protest Popemobile during WYD, in the end it was a significant victory for civil liberties and the right to criticise crimes veiled as religion.

Apr 27, 2009