Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from The Christian Institute

  The Christian Institute is a registered Charity which seeks to promote the Christian faith in the UK. We have a particular interest in religious liberties. This response considers the two questions outlined in the call for evidence.

Should existing religious offences (notably blasphemy) be amended or abolished?

  1.  Existing laws on religious offences should not be amended or abolished.

  2.  The blasphemy law recognises the unique contribution and status of Christianity in Britain. To remove the blasphemy law, or extend it to other religions, would challenge this. Any reform or abolition of the blasphemy law cannot be looked at separately from the constitutional role of Christianity in the state.

  3.  We believe the blasphemy law should remain unchanged in recognition of our Christian constitutional settlement. British heritage, culture, laws and democratic institutions have all been profoundly influenced for good by Christianity and cannot be understood without reference to it. The Head of State is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which is established by law and common law is the law of the land. The Coronation Oath sworn by the Monarch is profoundly Christian. Christian oaths are taken by MPs, others in public life and by witnesses in a Court. Both Houses of Parliament begin their proceedings with Christian prayers. The law requires Christian teaching and assemblies in schools. The UK is not a secular state.

  4.  Furthermore, while legislators and individuals have embraced secular values and beliefs in many areas, Christianity is still by far the largest faith in the UK. Widespread offence is caused when the person of Christ is blasphemed. A survey in December 2001[2] found that three-quarters of Britons regarded themselves as Christian. One in six claimed no religion. Only 5 per cent belonged to a non-Christian faith.

Should a new offence of incitement to religious hatred be created and, if so, how should the offence be defined?

  5.  The Christian Institute strongly opposes the creation of an incitement offence. Unlike the blasphemy law, which is only invoked in very rare and extreme cases, there is a real threat that a religious incitement offence would criminalise widespread and legitimate religious expression, cults or any extremist religious group could use the new offence to silence their strongest critics.

  6.  A new incitement offence would seriously harm freedom of speech because it would be used by those who are hostile to certain religious ideas. The Mysticism and Occult Federation recently conducted a campaign of complaints to the Radio Authority against Premier Christian Radio in London. They objected to them airing preachers warning of the danger of dabbling in the occult. Surprisingly, the Authority upheld some of their complaints. [3]In June, Bill Beales, head teacher of a secondary school in South Wales, faced calls for his suspension after he told a school assembly that society was turning its back on God's rules. [4]Recently a church was told by police that putting evangelistic leaflets through letterboxes in a partly Muslim area was a "serious racist incident". There have already been cases where Christians have actually been convicted of criminal offences simply for preaching in the streets. In 1999 Alison Redmond-Bate was found guilty of wilful obstruction after allegedly "unsettling" a crowd in York by warning them not to turn their backs on God. [5]She was cleared on appeal. Harry Hammond, an autistic pensioner, was recently convicted under the 1986 Public Order Act for preaching in the street while holding a placard with the words "Stop homosexuality".[6]

  7.  Many Christian people already feel afraid to publicly speak about their faith. These examples show how some people cannot tell the difference between promoting different religious beliefs and inciting hatred. It is important that such people are not handed a legal mechanism for attacking opposing beliefs. Britain's tradition of free speech actually stems from our Christian heritage and the Christian principle that people should not and cannot be forced into religious belief since it is a matter of the conscience.

  8.  Religion is completely different to race and it is wrong to apply incitement offences to religion. Religion is all about ideas, beliefs and philosophies. People can change their beliefs. They cannot change their race. Beliefs govern the making of moral choices. Race does not. Everyday controversy about religious belief is healthy, good and necessary, just like political controversy. The law must not infringe on freedom of speech and the right to argue that certain religious ideas are better than others.

  9.  There is no need for this new offence. It is already a criminal offence to incite violence against another person or his property, whether or not religion is the cause. The existing law needs to be enforced properly, instead of the state entering into an unnecessary and unjustified intrusion into freedom of speech, criminalising ideas rather than actions.

  10.  At The Christian Institute we are well aware of the unpleasantness of religious hatred. We ourselves are often subjected to abusive letters and phone calls because of our beliefs. We also help individuals who suffer because of their beliefs. To silence those who disagree with us we could easily make use of a law forbidding incitement to religious hatred but we do not believe it would be right to do so. We urge the committee to recommend the maintenance of the legal status quo and the better enforcement of existing laws to protect those who are victims of violence, criminal damage or other offences motivated by religious hatred.

5 July 2002

2   The Tablet, 22/29 December 2001, p.1857. See also The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2001. Back

3   See The Spectator, 14 November 2002. Back

4   The Daily Mail, 4 June 2002. Back

5   See, P Iganski, The Hate Debate, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 2002, p.124. Back

6   The Times, 25 April 2002 and The Mail on Sunday, 28 April 2002. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003