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

Memorandum from the Evangelical Alliance

  The Select Committee has requested submissions addressing two main issues which we consider in turn:


  The Alliance believes that Christian social ethics embodies concern for the well-being of all in society, especially those who are vulnerable. Therefore, it endorses legislation that will effectively provide protection from both racial and religious hatred.

  The Alliance opposes both the abolition and the extension of the common law offences of blasphemy. It advocates the dual approach of simultaneously retaining the blasphemy law together with the creation of an appropriate new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

  Whilst the definition of blasphemy has varied over the years and prosecutions under the blasphemy law are rare, nevertheless in line with Lord Scarman who regarded the blasphemy laws as an integral part of the legal safeguard of social harmony in Britain, we do not subscribe to the view that "the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in modern times". In a civilised society, whilst we naturally wish to protect the democratic right of freedom of speech, restrictions still have to be set against statements or material which is slanderous, libellous, defamatory or racist. A blasphemy law recognises that element of hurt and deep personal violation bound up with offensive words or images directed against religious faith. The Alliance believes that the abolition of what is rightly "common" law would send a wrong signal to a cynical society, implying that nothing remains sacred or of ultimate worth and value, whilst retention would act as a largely symbolic reminder of the Christian basis to UK law. Abolition would be seen as an official declaration that after some 1,500 years Britain was no longer a Christian nation, and would further raise wider problems relating to the status of the established Church. Religious belief should be entitled to special protection, not least because it is in most cases an essential motivation to good conduct and worthy of respect, if not admiration. We consider that even a secular British state ignores both the power of religious commitment and its heritage of Christian values at its peril.

  We consider that suggestions for extension of the blasphemy law (prompted mainly by frequent confusion between religion and ethnicity) raise additional and probably insurmountable complications, are practically unworkable, and could result in a rush of litigation and competing claims which would damage inter-faith relations.

  Firstly, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 adequately covers offences involving racial as opposed to religious hatred (although this does not cover adherents of Islam where ethnicity and religion do not coincide).

  Secondly, defining what is/is not a religion is problematic, fails to account for atheistic faiths, and may be exploited by certain groups, such as anti-social or dangerous cults. On the other hand, mainstream religious groups may find themselves classified as dangerous sects as has already occurred in France. Although alternatives are not readily apparent, leaving definition to the courts still involves uncertainty and allows scope for self-proclaimed groups to manipulate the system to define themselves.

  We acknowledge concerns regarding sects and aggressive and militant fringe religious organisations, especially following September 11. However, distinctions must be drawn between such groups and orthodox pedigree religious organisations with creeds and doctrines that are thousands of years old, and which believe in the non-coercive propagation of their faith. We recognise the difficulties this involves, however it is vital that any Bill addresses such issues of definition of religion rather than leaving it up to the Courts to make up as they go along.

  It also appears logically contradictory to promote a blasphemy law to protect the beliefs of different religions which are themselves mutually contradictory. Religious belief itself cannot be the standard according to which offence is measured for there is no general agreement about its content or veracity. The major belief systems involve essentially incompatible worldviews. Core statements of belief in one faith may de facto be deeply offensive to adherents of another. For example, Christians' historic insistence that Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God may be regarded as blasphemous by Muslims. On the other hand, Christians, whilst respecting the right of freedom of conscience of Muslims to hold certain beliefs about the Koran and Muhammad, would see it as part of their responsibility to expose what they regard as false claims.

  What can be agreed, however, is that groups will respect the rights and consciences of others to hold their beliefs and practice their faith within the inclusive laws of society—such agreement focuses not on the content of beliefs but on the overall well-being of society where peaceful co-existence is vital. Protection should therefore not be principally concerned with the content of religious beliefs, but forms of abuse, hatred and offence incited against people in general who hold beliefs (to quote Lord Scarman, abuse involving "scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt"). In this regard, general protection against insulting and abusive publications and behaviour seems more appropriate for new legislation, which nevertheless retains the symbolic blasphemy laws to emphasise the religious dimension and heritage.

  Finally, it should be noted that some faiths, such as Buddhists, have explicitly stated they do not desire the protection of the blasphemy law.


  The Alliance is in favour of the creation of a new law which will effectively protect all recognisable religious groups from threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour used with the intent to outrage, or knowingly expected to outrage the feelings of a significant number of the group. The Alliance will support measures that effectively seek to prevent incitement to religious hatred whilst at the same time preserve religious freedoms, beliefs, and the right to express them. It is possible to define the difference between offence which nevertheless allows for response and engagement, and outrage which is gratuitous and causes powerlessness because it offers no opportunity for combat or redress.

  But there is a danger that historic rights and freedoms may suffer in the future as a result of the courts' interpretation of Parliament's intentions. It is possible that a Christian could, for example, be prosecuted for criticising someone else's beliefs or for asserting the exclusive claims of Jesus. Christian broadcasters have already, and may again, be censured simply for quoting the Bible. Mission organisations could end up being monitored for the claims made in their literature and their proselytising activities circumscribed. For example, the editor of Muslim News has recently expressed concern that he could be prosecuted for offending Christians by denying the claims of Christ. Likewise, traditional Christianity insists on the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus Christ and its adherents could never compromise on this position.

  The Alliance does not seek special privilege for Christians. But what it would seek from a new law is a clear and effective commitment by Parliament to maintaining religious freedom. It would also seek specific assurances that Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and members of any other faith group (or none) be allowed to observe the rites, doctrines, and traditions of their beliefs, and be permitted to continue to express them openly without fear of prosecution. Of course, it is important to make a distinction between religious rites that are acceptable in a civilised society and "rites" that threaten life—for example, the practice of child sacrifice. We note that the Government have previously stated that they do not intend to restrict the longstanding tradition of rights to freedom of speech in Britain, and people will remain able to criticise religion or religious practices.

  The Government aims to preserve the right to practise one's own religion without fear of assault, and believe that there is an obvious difference between criticising a religion and inciting hatred through a criminal act. We understand that to be prosecuted, perpetrators must be guilty of using "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred against a group of people because of their religious belief". Nevertheless, it remains unclear in practice as to how distinctions are to be made between intention to stir up hatred and whether hatred is likely to be stirred up—whether offence is intended or where offence is taken. The taking of offence is clearly a subjective matter—how can the law decide which speech about religion is so offensive as to warrant prosecution?

  Whilst appreciating the legal difficulties in defining "intention", the Alliance remains concerned that prosecution could follow unintended but nevertheless perceived offence. In a recent case in Bournemouth a street evangelist was accused of inciting public disturbance and was actually prosecuted himself when he was attacked by a group objecting to his message. It is therefore vital for any proposed legislation not only to define "religious hatred" but also to clarify precisely what types of activity are to be covered under the new to provisions. The basic right of freedom of speech and of religion must cover liberty to preach and disagree in public, even though inevitably there will be those who do not like what they hear.

  In this context, the Alliance believes that it will not prove possible to devise legislation which can effectively measure intention without draconian restrictions on freedom of speech. What is really required is social restraint and change in public attitude which cannot simply be legislated into existence. At best, legislation can probably only address extreme forms of abuse, thereby helping to stimulate a climate of respect for others and a renewed sense of responsibility which must accompany the right of freedom of speech. Ultimately, the only really effective control against dangerous and extreme expressions of disrespect is respect for others and their beliefs. As we know from attempts to curb racism, the law is a blunt instrument. But it can assist in the process of setting standards by educating society, authors, artists and media to criticise fairly and responsibly.

  The Alliance therefore seeks assurances that any definition of "religious hatred" within proposed new legislation will be sufficiently clear to enable all faiths (and none) to freely press and advertise the claims of their own religion and criticise others. The Alliance also requests that new legislation incorporates unambiguous assurances, preferably defined within the legislation itself, that courts will not entertain trivial, frivolous, and malicious cases.

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