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Incitement to religious hatred

 “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe…  

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, US Supreme Court

 MOst of us are used to seeing the clergy, the church and sometimes even religion itself held up to ridicule in print, in film, on radio and on the television.  Just think of Father Ted, The Vicar of Dibley and in an earlier time, All Gas and Gaiters and the sketch shows of the late Dave Allen.  Although there was at times a furore over films like The Life of Brian it was generally accepted that the churches - just like other sections of society - were fair game for satire and humour, even if occasionally the humorists and satirists did cause genuine offence to some people.  Nobody really took the line that they were motivated by hatred of religious believers, or that they intended to provoke such a reaction in their readers, listeners or viewers.

 This is likely to change if the Religious and Racial Hatred Bill manages to become law. The government claims that the proposed law is designed to protect people rather than specific religious doctrines but it isn't quite so simple. Even David Blunkett, the original architect of the Bill, showed a worrying lack of precision in an Observer article where he posed the question, “Can it be right that hatred based on deliberate and provocative untruths about a person’s religion remains unchallenged?” (my emphasis). If David Blunkett himself believes that the offences are designed to protect beliefs rather than groups of people against what he claims are “untruths”, what are the chances that free expression will survive? It is certainly a matter of concern to the comedian Rowan Atkinson who fears becoming a target for every religious zealot in the country who can find a solicitor to take his case.

  Speaking in a widely reported meeting in the House of Commons, the Mr Bean and Blackadder star claimed that 'quite a few sketches' he has performed would be likely to fall foul of the proposed law.  "To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. A law which attempts to say you can criticise and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed."

  Suffering for one's art is one thing but the prospect of seven years in prison for an 'offensive' sketch is quite another. We can understand Rowan Atkinson's concern.  Why, though, should we worry, if a few overpaid professional comedians go to prison for offending the sensibilities of some iman or pastor?  Quite simply, because the law is framed so vaguely and in such an all-embracing manner that we could literally be next!  There is no precise definition of the offence. The Home Office claims that the Bill would not make it unlawful to criticise the beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers by claiming that they are false or harmful, or to express antipathy or dislike of particular religions or their leaders and followers. It leaves everything up to the Attorney General. He decides whether or not to prosecute and a judge will hand down any sentence. This could place the Attorney General under immense political pressure to prosecute a high-profile individual in what would amount to a Stalinist-style show trial, notwithstanding the claims of Home Office spindoctors that Rowan Atkinson and other comedians have nothing to fear.

   To be fair, Mr Atkinson recognises this point.  At the same meeting He went on to say that the government, 'can come to someone like me and say: "Really, you've nothing to worry about, you arty people...you'll be fine, we're not after you, we're after those nasty people in the North, the BNP etc." But why should anybody trust the Attorney General to do the right thing? Huge latent power will be lying dormant, just waiting to be abused for political ends.

   This point is fully appreciated by such disparate groups such as the Evangelical Alliance, the British Humanist Association, the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance which represents Black churches in Great Britain, the National Secular Society, the Evangelical Protestant Society, the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship and the Orange Order.  These groups fear that their legitimate aims and methods may be criminalised by the new Bill, however well-intentioned it may be.

  According to the avowedly atheistic National Secular Society, the Home Office Minister Paul Goggins told them in a private meeting that part of the intention of the Bill is to make people think twice before they speak, in other words to make them censor themselves.  This is surely an impediment to freedom of speech. The NSS believes that all religion is superstition and is not shy about telling the world about it.  One of its bestselling Christmas cards for year was one with Mary and Joseph in the stable in Bethlehem with the motto, 'It's a girl!'  Highly offensive to Christian believers but perfectly legal, so far… We wonder if the NSS will take the risk of republishing this card for the Christmas after the Bill becomes law.

   Christians too, could easily fall foul of the proposed law. Andrea Minichiello Williams of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, recognises this : 'The Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill will in fact and in law, curb freedom of speech about which every Christian should care passionately. Every member and minister of the Church of England should fight for this great freedom. With the proposed new offence we will see a chilling effect on how people talk about their faith in the public square and our opportunities to share the Gospel will suffer.'

Many religious denominations, sects and organisations owe their origins to disputes, arguments and schisms from other older or larger bodies.  While obscure to most of us, some of these points of theology are very important to the true believers.  One major Christian schism, the Protestant Reformation, began with a fundamental criticism of the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The Evangelical Protestant Society fears that documents like the 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith, which condemns the Pope as the Antichrist, will be classed as hate literature.  The Orange Order, already unpopular in government circles, also fears that it will targeted by the proposed law. The NuLab controlled Scottish Executive has already admitted that new legislation there on marches and public demonstrations is designed deliberately to tie the Orange Order up in red tape and thus reduce the annual number of parades in Scotland.  How could they resist the temptation to make an example of a few Orange diehards by banging them up for seven years on an incitement to religious hatred rap?

   The Barnabas Fund, which works to defend the rights of persecuted Christians in Muslim countries who are often denied the right to worship at all and where apostasy from Islam carries a death sentence will find it harder to speak up for its overseas brethren. A complaint from an offended Muslim in this country could land them in court!

   The Religious and Racial Hatred Bill is unnecessary and may even be counter-productive.  It could become a nightmare to enforce if every religious sect with an axe to grind announced that it is 'offended' by the words of another sect and demands action from the Attorney General  Such a law could only increase religious tensions if one 'faith community' perceives that another is officially beyond any criticism, gaining special privileges over all the rest. Given NuLab's track record, it seems inevitable that this law is likely to be enforced in an entirely partisan manner. 

   We should oppose this tyrannical Bill at every stage. Genuine incitement to hatred is wrong and it's already illegal. Existing legislation banning incitement to violence and other criminal acts already provides protection if enforced properly. We need to hammer this point home at every opportunity in order to retain our traditional rights and liberties.

 David Kerr - January 2006

A version of this article originally appeared in Taking Liberties, a special issue of  Third Way magazine.  Copies available for £5.00 (post paid) from Third Way Publications, PO Box 1243, London SW7 3PB.  Please make all cheques/Pos payable to Third Way Publications.




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