Several West Australian religious leaders have come to the defence of Canning MP Andrew Hastie after a Mandurah priest and a parliamentarian accused him of attempted political interference at local churches.
The claims followed a meeting the Liberal MP held for more than 20 religious leaders at the Eastlake Church in Greenfields on January 25.
Mandurah MP David Templeman said he understood Mr Hastie had used that platform to urge church leaders to persuade their congregations to vote against the Labor Party, arguing religious freedoms could be at risk.
While the state MP was not at the meeting, he weighed into the debate after Christ's Church Anglican Parish of Mandurah priest Father Ian Mabey, who was at the meeting, spoke out in an article published in The West Australian.
"After the meeting, I made it clear to my congregation that I would not be directed in what I preach at the pulpit," Father Mabey said.
Father Mabey has since refused to answer any further questions put to him by the Mandurah Mail.
"I understand that Andrew called a meeting and was articulating a view that local parish priests, pastors, and church leaders should be directing their congregations to vote against the Labor Party. This is unprecedented. There is a clear separation between church and state," Mr Templeman told the Mail.
Mr Templeman said he was "astounded" by Mr Hastie's response in The West Australian. He said Mr Hastie had attacked Father Mabey, especially in relation to his being an unsuccessful Liberal Party candidate in the 1990s.
"I'm just absolutely astounded that Andrew Hastie has attacked a local priest who simply spoke out about his concern that a local politician would seek to influence a priest's responsibility to speak from the pulpit.
"For him to belittle him because he happened to be a Liberal Party candidate in the past - that's got nothing to do with it. To use 'he's peddling the Labor line', that's absolute rubbish.
"I just found that behaviour quite disturbing and just inappropriate."
However, several religious leaders who attended the meeting have defended Mr Hastie, saying he had not flexed any political muscle towards the church and its operations.
All claimed the original article in The West Australian falsely accused Mr Hastie and they wanted to rectify the damage done to Mr Hastie.
Peel Presbyterian Church minister Joel Otten told the Mail he heard both Mr Hastie and Queensland senator Amanda Stoker speak at the event. He said they were "cordial, open to answer questions and (to) hear all opinions".
"At no point did she or Andrew state or imply as to what religious organisations should preach or teach," he said.
"I would have thought Mabey's desire to preach a sermon... against a politician indicates that he is pushing his own agenda from the pulpit - the very thing he accuses Andrew of supposedly doing."
Former Redeemer Church Mandurah pastor Lyle Wetherston also refuted the claims.
Mr Wetherston said he was "saddened" to hear that Father Mabey had made accusations against the parliamentarians.
"I stand by my original statements, which I sent to The West Australian journalist before the article was published; in no way did Andrew or Amanda encourage us to tell our churches to vote any particular way," he said.
Association for Reformed Political Action research officer Laurence Van der Plas, who was among those in the crowd at the January meeting, said the meeting was noteworthy for "its lack of partisan politics".
He said any attempt to portray these meetings as an attempt to rally support for the Coalition was an oversimplification.
"The story represents a complete misunderstanding of the concept of separation between church and state, which is a reference to their separation as institutions," he said.
Former Free Reformed Church of Baldivis minister Stephen 't Hart said: "in no way did Andrew Hastie use the event to encourage pastors to instruct their members to vote against any political party".
I'm simply defending my name against a character smear.Canning MP Andrew Hastie
"Mr Hastie tends to talk straight and states his views, but he's not one to manipulate churches or others for personal gain," he said.
Mr Hastie strongly refuted any claim he had told religious leaders what they should teach.
"The story reported by The West Australian was incorrect. I believe that religious leaders must be free to teach and live their convictions," Mr Hastie said.
"It's an essential part of a free society. That's what makes Australia so special.
"Father Ian Mabey is free to teach in accordance with his convictions.
"My disagreement with him is over his accusation that I would dare to tell religious leaders what they should teach.
"I'm disappointed Mr Templeman would buy into this nonsense. He knows how much I've fought for religious freedom during the 45th Parliament.
"I'm simply defending my name against a character smear."