Liberal senator Zed Seselja has criticised new powers allowing ACT police officers to ban and fine anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic in Canberra.
Speaking to an Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) audience on Tuesday night, Senator Seselja said the laws were incompatible with freedom of speech and religion and should be changed.
The legislation was introduced by Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury last year, who argued protesters were causing distress and making patients walk through "a wall of people who were making judgments".
The laws were introduced to protect women from being harassed, intimidated, obstructed, photographed, or filmed as they access Canberra's abortion clinic.
Pro-life supporters have gathered outside the clinic for 17 years but are now banned from demonstrating within 50 metres of the site.
Senator Seselja's criticism of the law was greeted with applause by parts of the roughly 150 people at the senate candidate debate, which was hosted by the ACL's director Lyle Shelton.
"I'm a big believer in freedom of speech and freedom of religion," Senator Seselja said.
"I think provided that [protest] is done peacefully and in a way that is not violent or in any other way infringing on the rights of other people, then I think they should be free to pray, to speak, and to protest peacefully. I don't think that law supports those principles."
In April, an anti-abortion protester was issued a criminal infringement notice after being caught demonstrating within the exclusion zone.
"I'm not sure that is the best way of upholding freedom," Senator Seselja said.
"I think people have a right to disagree … and provided they do that peacefully I don't think there should be legal sanctions against it."
Pro-life campaigners have argued they are not confrontational and the vigils are peaceful.
Canberra Goulburn's Catholic Archbishop Christopher Prowse led a prayer vigil at the site in March last year. Anti-abortion material is often handed out.
Women's Centre for Health Matters executive director Marcia Williams has complained about the protests for years, claiming they make women feel ashamed, distressed and judged.
ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher told the audience she supported the law and said it should stay.
"I think the issue is not about whether people are allowed to gather and pray, or to practice their faith, it's about the proximity to people accessing a legal health service and in that respect, I support it," she said.
"I have certainly been lobbied over many years about some of the distress that some of those peaceful protests have caused to women and to people supporting those women to access a legal health service in the ACT."
ACT Greens senate candidate Christina Hobbs was not at the debate, choosing instead to boycott the event due to the ACL's anti-LGBTI views.
"This is the same group that once said being gay was more hazardous than smoking," she said. "This is the same group that warned that same-sex couples having children will lead to another stolen generation."
Mr Shelton said he was disappointed by the boycott. Senator Seselja described it as disappointing and "more anti-Christian bigotry from the Greens".
Ms Gallagher said she strongly disagreed with the ACL's views but didn't believe "rational progressive voices" should abandon the discussion.
She accused the Greens of being hypocritical given the party criticised Senator Seselja's decision not to attend a debate hosted by the ANU student association in May.
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