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ENGLAND: Anger as religious hatred bill returns

Anger as religious hatred bill returns

Church of England Newspaper
May 20, 2005

Religious groups have spoken out fiercely against the reintroduction of the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill, the plans of which were outlined in the Queen's Speech this week.

Although the government claims the revised bill will not affect "criticism, commentary or ridicule of faiths," Christian organisations have claimed that the bill, in whatever guise, represents restrictions on freedom of speech.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, the Public Policy Officer for the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, commented: "Whilst we are opposed 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 behaviour 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."

Dr Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs for the Evangelical Alliance, also expressed strong reservations about the return of the bill: "The announcement of the Government's intention to re-introduce this controversial legislation that was successfully opposed during the last Parliament is no surprise, given Labour's manifesto commitment and election pact with the Muslim Council of Britain."

He added: "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."

The Government confirmed it would press ahead with its contentious move, but insists that the new bill, which expands the current offence of incitement to racial hatred in the Public Order Act 1986, will only cover "instances where people stir up hatred of others on the basis of their religious belief." rather than curbing the right to criticise.

Ministers say that under the current laws, members of some religion s such as Jews and Sikhs are protected against religious hatred under racial hatred offences, but Christians, Hindus and Muslims are not.

A similar proposal before the election provoked vocal opposition from writers, actors and comedians, such as Ian McEwan and Rowan Atkinson. The earlier attempt to create such an offence was also blocked by the Lords.

However, in the government's notes for the revised plans, it says: "The offence would not be an assault on people's right to simply disapprove of the beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion."

The offence of inciting religious hatred applies to "members of extremist organisations 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."

However, with penalties of up to seven year in jail for those deemed to incite religious hatred, there is widespread concern that this legislation could serve to criminalise preachers. Mrs Minichiello Williams emphasised the alarm felt by Christian groups: "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."


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