Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum from the British Humanist Association


  A.1  This second submission to the Select Committee addresses itself in more detail to the law repeals (other than those related to blasphemy) proposed in clause one of the Bill introduced by Lord Avebury. In our original memorandum, we referred briefly to this aspect of the Bill in paragraph 3.3.

  A.2  We also wish to make a correction to paragraph 3.2.1 in the previous submission, and to make an additional comment on the draft guidance prepared by the Attorney General in the context of the proposed Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.


  B.1  The Law Commission's 1985 report reviewed the law on offences relating to public worship, taking account of representations made following their 1981 consultation paper. They proposed that the laws specified in clause 1(1)(b) and (c) and 1(2)(c), (e) and (f) of the Bill introduced by Lord Avebury could be repealed without replacement, but suggested that section two of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 fulfilled a useful purpose but should be replaced by a new enactment, which they outlined without providing a full draft.

  B.2  The British Humanist Association agrees that all these provisions should be repealed. However, and particularly in the light of the proposal on incitement to religious hatred, we oppose the proposal by the Law Commission that section two of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 be replaced. We do concede that some minor amendments to other general laws may be necessary, subject to legal advice on the extent of such provisions. For example, if the Public Meetings Act 1908 does not apply to religious services, it would be a relatively simple matter to extend it. The principle governing our approach is that religious organisations, places and activities should not have specific protection.


  The Law Commission proposed two new offences to replace section two of the ECJA, to which we respond as follows:

C.1  Distruption of worship

    C.1.1  One proposed new offence was "disruption" of "a religious service or act of worship" "by means of offensive or disorderly words or behaviour". The offence would extend to all "acts of worship occurring in a public place" but would not cover worship in private dwellings. There would be no requirement to prove intent.

    C.1.2  We agree that religious services should not be disrupted without good cause (such as was in our view present in the Brighton church case, as strongly argued by the defence on that occasion). However, this protection should be provided under general rather than specific legislation. Laws already exist against acts of violence, causing damage, threatening behaviour, causing a breach of the peace etc, and under the proposed Bill behaviour likely to incite religious hatred will be added to this long list.

    C.1.3  What remains is deliberate interruption of religious proceedings. But public meetings, orchestral concerts, theatrical performances, art exhibitions and all manner of other occasions, including, one might add, humanist funerals, weddings and other ceremonies, also require to be protected from disruption, and the same law should be sufficient for religious assemblies. The Law Commission's only argument to the contrary was the assertion that "a special offence penalising offensive behaviour which seriously disturbs religious services  .  .  .  is justifiable on the grounds that worshippers engaged in such activities  .  .  .  should be entitled to do so free of undue disturbance which might cause outrage or offence". So also should concert audiences and playgoers, and the Law Commission's studiedly vague comment in respect of religious activities that "where particular activities are in progress or where premises are specially set aside for particular purposes, these justify the special protection which an offence would give" applies equally to chamber music at the Wigmore Hall as to revivalist preaching to a charismatic congregation.

    C.1.4  We object particularly strongly to the Commission's proposal that their proposed offence should apply to religious worship wherever it took place, including open air meetings, which would be an invitation to envangelical groups to stage impromptu outdoor prayer meetings free from any objection, however much to the annoyance of other users of the public places they took over. If, despite our objections, the Law Commission's proposal is adopted, at least its application should be confined to registered places of worship.

    C.1.5  We also object to the removal of the requirement to prove intent: it would seem to bring into the law's embrace acts by disturbed people and unintentional acts, maybe committed in ignorance that an act of worship was in progress—for example, the offending conduct could take place out of sight but within earshot of the religious proceedings. (We note that the Commission suggests defences for unwitting conduct for their second proposed offence.)

C.2  Offensive behaviour in places of worship

    C.2.1  The second new offence would forbid "behaviour in a place of worship which is likely to cause serious offence to anyone who ordinarily uses it for the purpose of worship", subject to defences related to specified types of unwitting breach of the law.

    C.2.2  The intention of this proposal was to deal with acts of desecration of places of worship at times when no-one else was present (so that breach of the peace was unlikely), where the act was in a private place (so that section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 would not apply), and where there was no criminal damage or other specific offence. The example the Commission gives is of "a receptacle for holy water [being] filled with objectionable matter".

    C.2.3  It is by no means as clear to us as it was to the Commission that acts that cause no damage and do not threaten public order should be banned. Many people have to tolerate a great deal of annoyance in ordinary life. But even if some protection is needed, it should be given under a suitable law of general application, not by giving legal privileges to religious organisations. For example, it may be considered justifiable to prosecute someone who urinates in a chalice. Such conduct is undoubtedly offensive and deplorable. So also is the regrettable and more widespread practice of pushing faeces through letterboxes in disputes between neighbours or in cases of racial hatred. The same law should be used to deal with all of these, and if a new offence has to be created, let it be a general one of utility to all, not a special law to benefit religious groups.


  D.1  In the process of redrafting paragraph 3.2.1, we inadvertently stated that the blasphemy law "protects certain beliefs and makes it illegal to question them or deny them". Our intention was to state that this was the origin of blasphemy law. We are aware that the current interpretation involves "words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive and which tend to vilify the Christian religion"


  E.1  As stated in its earlier submission, the BHA welcomes the draft guidance prepared by the Attorney General in the context of the proposed Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, believing that it would be valuable to set out in this authoritative way the safeguards that should ensure that legitimate methods of religious debate, including robust criticism, satire and comical representations of religion, are not restricted. We are, however, concerned about the wording of paragraph 5.12 of the draft guidance, which emphasises the "high threshold tests", but then states that "people who are religious or who follow particular religions are unlikely to offend the statute" and that "legitimate expressions of religious belief which  .  .  .  could not be construed as anything other than the expression of a religious tenet are, similarly, not likely to amount to an offence of incitement to religious hatred". This could be interpreted as implying that people who are not religious are more likely to offend the statute if they express their non-religious beliefs in the same or similar ways, and we consider it essential that the Attorney General's guidance on the proposed Religious Offences Act rectifies this.

July 2002

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