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HATE SPEECH LEGISLATION IN THE UK:
THE RELIGIOUS HATRED BILL

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Sponsored link.

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The Religious Hatred Bill:

A bill to combat religious hate speech was introduced by the ruling Labour party to the British Parliament in 2001. However, it did not become law. 1 A second bill was introduced in 2004-JUL . The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties expressed opposition to the bill. The British government retracted that bill on 2005-APR-06 in order to prevent other anti-crime bills from being defeated in Parliament. 2

The Queen's speech to the UK parliament on 2005-MAY-17 included a reference to a third attempt to pass a law restricting religious hate speech. Most Muslim groups had been urging the government to create this type of legislation since the early 1990s. "They feel that such a law is required to protect their communities from Islamophobia, especially from far-right groups." 3 The British Broadcasting Crporation stated that the the new bill is targeting "members of extremist organizations who stir up hatred against members of minority faiths and to individuals who seek to stir up hatred against those who do not share their faith."

The maximum sentence for anyone found guilty of religious hate speech would be seven years. The bill takes the form of an amendment to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill (SOCP) which currently prohibits the incitement of racial hatred. The amendment would increase the scope of that bill to include hatred based on religion. Although the existing SOCP law covers hatred against mono-ethnic faith groups such as Jews or Sikhs, it does not protect multi-ethnic religious groups such as Christians and Muslims. The proposed amendment is intended to plug this gap. 4

A Home Office spokeswoman stated in 2004-DEC: "There is a clear difference between criticism of a religion and the act of inciting hatred against members of a religious group. The incitement offences have a high criminal threshold and prosecutions require the consent of the Attorney General. There has not been a widespread sense that the existing offence has interfered with free speech and we are confident that an offence of incitement to religious hatred will not do so either." 5

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Support for the legislation:

Many secular and mainline religious groups favor passage of the religious hatred bill because they feel it will protect religious minorities from verbal attacks, such as Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.

bulletAnglican and Roman Catholic bishops support the law.
bulletDr. Elizabeth Harris, Secretary for Inter Faith Relations of the Methodist Church said: "The Methodist Church is committed to an open discussion of beliefs and ensuring that people of all faiths are protected from hatred. Other faiths tell us that they want this legislation. We have to respect this. This legislation is not about debating truth claims nor about whether all religions are the same. But it is about all individuals and communities having the right to live and work without the fear of violence arising from religious hatred. The legislation will apply to everyone, so Christians will be protected as well." 6
bulletThe Hindu Council UK has indicated its support for the bill by reprining a government Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill Factsheet which states in part: "The proposed provision is needed to combat the incited hatred that threatens the cohesion of our communities. In evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences, many organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, gave examples of problems where they faced difficulties responding under existing legislation alone and where the extension of the incitement provision to religious hatred would help them combat extremism." 7

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Opposition to the legislation:

In 2004-DEC, a famous comic actor, Rowan Atkinson, spoke against the bill on behalf of the National Secular Society. He said: "To criticize a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticize their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom....The freedom to criticize ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society and a law which attempts to say you can criticize and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed." He expressed concern that there have been "quite a few sketches" that he has performed that might be considered an offense under the proposed bill, "in the right hand and with the right energy." 5

There is very strong opposition from conservative Protestant groups who feel that the law would have a "chilling" effect on the freedom of religious expression.

bulletDr. Don Horrocks, public affairs spokesperson for the Evangelical Alliance said: "Despite its noble intention, we still consider that this legislation, unless significantly altered, is likely to undermine freedom of speech, damage community relations and usher in a new climate of illiberalism and repression." Earlier in 2005, he opposed the bill even though it was "well-intentioned," because it restricted freedom of speech, even the "free proclamation of the gospel." 2
bulletAndrea Minichiello Williams, the Public Policy Officer for the Lawyer's Christian Fellowship, said: "Whilst we are apposed to hatred being whipped up against any section of the community, we believe there are sufficient laws already in place through the criminal law to ensure that such behavior can be dealt with. 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 offense 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." 9
bulletThe Barnabas Fund, an Evangelical Christian group which advocates on behalf of Christians being persecuted in foreign lands stated: "Critics of the law have previously pointed out that existing legislation banning incitement to violence and other criminal acts already provides protection if enforced properly. They argue that in reality this new law could end up being used to prevent all reasonable debate and criticism of another person’s religion and create greater inter-religious tensions. Barnabas Fund is particularly concerned that the bill could potentially silence those who speak out on behalf of millions of people who suffer as a result of particular religious teachings, such as Muslims who convert to another faith (who should be executed according to Islamic law) or Dalits (treated as 'untouchables' in the traditional Hindu caste system)." 10

Evangelical Christian groups in Sweden and Canada have also expressed concern over religious hate and religious propaganda laws in their countries. However, their main concern involved clauses in the laws to criminalize hate speech directed against persons with a homosexual orientation. This is not present in the proposed British bill.

Religious author Michael Burleigh wrote in an opinion section of the Telegraph newspaper stating that: "The Barnabas Fund, which campaigns for Christians in Islamic societies, rightly points to how such a law will make it harder for them to protect people [in other countries] whose [religious] choice renders them second-class citizens, or who are denied any opportunity to worship publicly. Expressions of support for an apostate like Hirsi Ali - who has pointed out that she would have been executed in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia or Syria - will potentially attract the unwanted attentions of the Attorney General, police and courts. So might anyone who feels moved to expose paedophile shenanigans in the Roman Catholic Church. And then there are cults. I happen to think that Satanists and Scientologists are mad; am I going to be prosecuted for saying so in print?" Burleigh notes that "Ms Ali inspired the liberal film-maker Theo van Gogh into extending a traditionally earthy Dutch anti-clericalism to Islam; the result being that he was shot and stabbed, with a warning note to Ms Ali thoughtfully affixed to his corpse with a carving knife." 4

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Possibility of prosecution of Jewish and Christian groups under this law:

The Bible contains many religiously intolerant statements and describes many religiously intolerant actions. Most of the genocides mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) were motivated by intolerance of neighboring tribes' religious beliefs. Some biblical passages call for the execution of people of other faiths during times of war and peace.

Some examples from the Hebrew Scriptures were:

bulletThe book of Joshua described a religiously-motivated genocidal campaign intended to exterminate all Canaanites
bulletLeviticus 17:7-9 prohibited alternative religious expressions and required the death penalty both for Jews and foreign visitors.
bulletFour passages in Numbers, including Numbers 18:7 required that non-News entering the Hebrew tabernacle were to be executed.
bulletDeuteronomy 17:2-5 required that a Jew who converted to another religion was to be executed.
bulletPsalms 106:35-38 stated that the Gods and Goddesses of other societies were regarded as devils.
bulletMore details.

Some examples from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were:

bulletNumerous passages in the Christian Scriptures state or imply that God intends to have all non-Christians tortured in Hell for all eternity. This belief is frequently mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, but is found throughout the other Gospels and Epistles as well.
bullet1 Corinthians 10:20-21 states that the Gods of non-Jewish religions are devils.
bullet2 Corinthians 6:14-17 requires Christians to have no interaction with non-Christians because the latter worship Satan.
bullet1 Timothy 4:1 implies that minority Christian groups follow seducing spirits and devils.
bulletRevelation 9:20-21 is a description of an end-of-the-world genocide of non-Christians who do not abandon their religion in favor of Christianity.
bulletMore details

It is quite conceivable that a religious group which stresses these biblical themes could be considered by the courts to be expressing religious hatred against other faiths, and thus be found guilty under the proposed bill if it were to become law. Even a single sermon could result in a charge being laid under the law against a pastor.

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References used:

  1. "UK Christians Oppose Proposed Religious Hatred Bill," The Christian Post, 2005-MAY-25, at: http://www.christianpost.com/

  2. "Government drops religious hate law as election looms following intense free speech campaign,"  The Barnabas Fund, 2005-APR-06, at: http://www.barnabasfund.org/

  3. "Muslims warn parties on hate bill," The Sunday Times, 2005-FEB-06, at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/

  4. Michael Burleigh, "Religious hatred Bill is being used to buy Muslim votes," Opinion.telegraph, 2005-MAY-31, at: http://opinion.telegraph.co.uk/

  5. "Blackadder star teams up with Evangelicals to oppose religious hatred bill," Ekklesia, 2004-DEC-06, at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/

  6. "Methodist church backs religious hatred bill," Ekklesia, 2004-DEC-13, at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/

  7. "Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill Factsheet," Hindu Council UK, at: http://www.hinducounciluk.org/

  8. "Religious Hatred Bill Puts Freedom at Risk, Says Atkinson," The Independent, UK, 2004-DEC-04, at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/9656

  9. Lucy Vanakova, "Evangelical Christians Emphasise Opposition to Religious Hatred Bill," Christianity Today, 2005-MAY-20, at: http://www.christiantoday.com/

  10. "British Government Announce Intention for Incitement to Religious Hatred Law," The Barnabas Fund, 2005-MAY-18, at: http://www.barnabasfund.org/

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-MAY-31
Latest update: 2005-DEC-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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