Government proposals for a law on religious hatred are complicated – and will face a tough time in Parliament.
What is the government proposing?
The government says it wants to extend protection to people so they cannot be harmed because of their religious beliefs.
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The proposals include some subtle and complex arguments but boil down to whether society should protect people from hatred because of what they believe.
The proposal would essentially extend the concept of the UK’s race hate laws to cover belief; it would become illegal to knowingly use words or behaviour which are threatening, insulting or abusive in a way that stirs up hatred against an individual because of what they believe.
Give us an example?
It will be up to the courts to interpret the law if it is passed, but we have a good idea what the Home Office wants the law to mean. Take these two theoretical statements:
Statement one: “I hate Buddhism/Christianity/Islam, it’s a nonsense religion that serves no good.”
Statement two: “I hate Buddhists/Christians/Muslims – their ideas are dangerous and we need to do something about them.”
It is the second type of statement which ministers have indicated they want the law to target. The law’s supporters say the first statement would not fall foul of the law because for a prosecution to go ahead the words need to be abusive and intended to stir up hated. However, opponents say the legislation has been drawn wide enough to mean someone could be prosecuted whether or not they intended their words to be inciteful.
But what if someone hates a religion because they think it’s a threat?
This is where things get complicated, say critics. Those opposed to the law argue that it would be impossible to say X or Y religion damages British society because, in doing so, they may be accused of inciting hatred.
One vehement critic, the commentator Charles Moore, provocatively argued in the Daily Telegraph the law would stop him asking if the Prophet Mohammed had been a paedophile for marrying a girl under the age of 16. When one Muslim group attacked his column and demanded action, Mr Moore said that alone proved his point.
The government on the other hand says the test for what constitutes incitement is set high enough to ensure that robust and free debate about beliefs will continue as before.
Any prosecution would have to be approved by the attorney general and the number would be small. Ministers say the small number of prosecutions for incitement to racial hatred (fewer than 100 in three years) demonstrate the law can be applied sensibly.
So current hate laws don’t cover religious people?
Northern Ireland has its own laws to deal with sectarian discrimination between Protestants and Catholics. But supporters of the proposals including senior police officers say the law elsewhere is inconsistent. Sikhs and Jews already have full protection from incitement because the courts regard them as distinct races.
But Christians, Muslims and others are not afforded the same protection because they do not constitute a single ethnic block.
But isn’t it illegal to discriminate on religious grounds already?
There are already Europe-wide regulations banning religious discrimination in the work place while the Human Rights Act incorporated the concept of religious freedom into British law.
In 2002 the government also gave judges new powers to increase sentences if religion is an aggravating factor in a crime – such as an arson attack on a place of worship.
And isn’t incitement already a crime?
There’s an offence of incitement which says that it’s unlawful to try and persuade someone to commit a criminal act. Critics of the present proposals say this older law could be used easily against bigots trying to whip up hatred or violence against believers.
What about if I want to criticise a faith for good reason or just for fun – isn’t this curtailing my freedom of speech?
Depends who you listen to. A vocal campaign against the legislation includes the comedian Rowan Atkinson of Blackadder fame. These opponents say the legislation will prevent them poking fun at religions.
“To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous,” Mr Atkinson told a campaign rally at the House of Commons. “But to criticise their religion – that is a right. That is a freedom.”
Shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve has also argued against these proposals, saying the law would damage conmnmunity relations.
One of the examples cited by opponents is the play Behzti which depicts abuse happening within a Sikh temple.
The play opened at the Birmingham Rep theatre – and was forced to close after protests from the Sikh community which the police said they could not control.
Critics predict that even if the legislation does not ban such works, it creates space within which those opposed to artistic expression will believe they have a charter to act.
And what do supporters say to that?
Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has said his organisation hears week in and out of people being harassed because of their faith, and having no protection under the law.
“We are, unlike some, very clear about what this law should and should not do,” said Mr Phillips earlier this year. “It should zero in on those who encourage people to take harmful actions against others.
“In essence the law should protect the believer; the belief should be strong and confident enough to fight for itself.”
Where does blasphemy fit into all this?
The law of blasphemy bans people from saying unpleasant things about the Church of England’s take on Christianity – but in practical terms it’s now extremely unlikely that we will ever see another prosecution.
The government has not parcelled that law up with its new proposals and has only said that it may look again at the law in the future.