In response to Evangeline’s slight misunderstanding of the issues involved, allow me to go a bit deeper.
I fully agree with the government that peace between our faith communities is of the utmost importance. I also want to affirm that I am profoundly in opposition to the incitement of religious hatred between faith groups. Having been caught up in sectarian hatred as a boy in Scotland between Protestant and Catholic people I have witnessed first hand the harmful effects of this problem.
However, it is the unintended consequences of the Bill that concern me. The Bill apprears to cover cases far beyond the ones the Government says it wants to cover and to have enormous potential to be used for purposes other than the intended one.
More specifically, these are the areas I see are problematic:
a. The lowest threshold for an offence is that words are “insulting”. The courts have already held that relating certain sexual behaviour to immorality would be insulting to some groups. Christianity contains strong moral teaching which will be considered insulting under this definition. Additionally both Christianity and Islam are proselytising religions and teach things which contradict each other, most importantly about the identity of Jesus Christ. The teaching of one religion has great potential, inevitably but unintentionally, to be considered insulting by members of the other;
b. The second limb (b) of the offence requires no intention on the part of the maker of a statement to stir up religious hatred, but only that the words are “likely” to do so. As is made quite clear in the explanatory notes to the Bill, paragraph (b) is stated as an alternative to paragraph (a). That is shown by the use of the word “or”;
c. There is nothing in the text of the offence to prevent “Religious hatred” from being interpreted as hatred against the beliefs held by members of a particular religion, or the practices of the members;
d. There is no defence that the words are true;
e. There is no definition of religion. When Fiona MacTaggart was Home Office Minister she indicated on Law in Action in November 2004 that even Satanists would be protected;
f. Hatred is not defined. The dictionary definition of intense dislike or detestation will be used which is a highly subjective test and very difficult to define or predict.
I fear the consequences of this ambiguity will be that there will be a chilling of the climate of free speech in the religious arena.
a) It will become difficult to expose groups who persecute others in the name of religion.
b) Socially unacceptable practices carried out in the name of religion, such as child abuse, will become more difficult to expose.
c) The effect of this would be to deprive people of information about dangerous cults which would otherwise safeguard them from exploitation.
d) Some public teaching of religion and reading of passages from Holy books will become illegal.
e) The real threat of the breakdown of community cohesion as faith groups seek to use the legislation as a stick to beat their opponents.
The good intentions behind the Bill are undoubtedly overshadowed by the adverse consequences it will have if it is enacted in its present form. The prospect of clergymen hauled in front of a court by a vexatious litigant is not one the government here ever intended. However, neither did the government in Australia intend for a witch to take the Salvation Army to court in an unmeritorious, embarrassing recent case which the judge eventually threw out. Yet it happened there in a nation who have a similar law. Our fear is that the same could happen here.
This information is part of letters I have drafted to peers who sit in the UK’s second senior chamber of government, the House of Lords, who will review the Bill on 11th October.