Related: High Court rejects mosque appeal
FEW in Bendigo could forget the scenes in town hall on June 18, 2014.
A packed gallery, a police presence and placards met councillors as they sat to vote on a proposed mosque in Bendigo East.
Councillor Mark Weragoda – a Christian man with Sri Lankan heritage – is mocked with Middle Eastern music and receives insults from the gallery as he speaks in support of the mosque.
He is backed by six other councillors. Councillor Lisa Ruffell notes other religious buildings in the city – the cathedral, Great Stupa – also had parking and traffic concerns, but they were supported.
Councillor Peter Cox is firm in his support of the mosque, multiculturalism and freedom of belief.
The City of Greater Bendigo is confident the proposal meets all local planning requirements.
The mosque gains council approval, 7 votes to 2. Elise Chapman and Helen Leach oppose the plan.
On June 15, 2016 – just three days short of two years later – the council receives final vindication for its decision to approve the $3.5 million mosque. The High Court has thrown out an appeal against the project, refusing to grant leave.
At a local, state and federal level, the decision was final.
The mosque made it past the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal on August 6, 2015 – the second step on its way to approval.
Objectors had argued bias against VCAT president Greg Garde, but they were found to be baseless. They argued the mosque was “creating demand”, and feared for the “Islamisation of Bendigo”.
In his ruling, Justice Garde found a mosque with capacity of 150, and 375 at Eid and on Fridays, was appropriate for a city of Bendigo’s size. At the time, Bendigo had 125 families of Islamic faith.
VCAT approved the project. Objectors then took their case to the Victorian Court of Appeal.
Their case before Chief Justice Marilyn Warren started badly. She described the appeal documents as “embarrassing”, while the objectors’ solicitor conceded they were like an “alphabet soup”.
They argued the mosque would bring negative social effects to Bendigo, but none were provided during the hearing.
Judges said the Charter of Human Rights protected freedom of religion, and the simple act of practicing a religion could not be considered an adverse “social effect”.
The objection was described as “overstated and unfounded”.
The highest court in Victoria had backed the City of Greater Bendigo and VCAT, approving the Bendigo mosque.
Lead objector Julie Hoskin vowed to take her fight to the highest court in Australia, and she did just that, attempting to crowd source funding.
But the final appeal to the High Court barely made it through the door.
At their first hearing, two judges refused to grant leave to appeal. The objectors had no grounds left to oppose the Bendigo mosque.
The council’s case had been watertight on all levels.
“A church is a church, is a church,” planning director Prue Mansfield said.