Submission from Churches' Commission for
Inter Faith Relations
1. Two strands of our inquiry are clear:
amendment or abolition of long-standing offences such as blasphemy;
and the introduction of a new offence of inciting religious hatred.
Are there any other issues under the heading of "religious
offences" which the Committee could or should examine? In
particular, are there any issues in relation to offences arising
out of religious discrimination?
Given the two strands of the current inquiry
into blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred, there may be
insight to be gained through reference to offences arising out
of religious discrimination.
My understanding of the new offence of inciting
religious hatred is that it would be strictly measured, as is
the existing offence of inciting racial hatred. Very few cases
would ever be brought to court because of the burden of proof
concerning causing or intending to cause hatred. It may be that
the benefit of such legislation would be that it would enshrine
in law the value of protection from religious hatred.
If a further parallel can be drawn with race
legislation, it is the law on discrimination which perhaps has
most impact on people's daily lives because it relates to employment
and local authority services and is more regularly implemented.
Offences arising out of religious discrimination would similarly
impact on daily experiences of equal opportunities. Therefore,
I would like to emphasise the importance of offences arising out
of religious discrimination. However, in the case of legislation,
incitement to religious hatred and religious discrimination are
separate and distinct. I would, therefore, agree that while there
is inter-relation between the legislation under consideration
by the committee and religious offences arising out of religious
discrimination, the scope of this inquiry may most profitably
be confined to blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred.
2. Do you have a view on any of the other
proposals for abolition/repeal put forward by the Law Commission
My responses to this question are largely contained
in response to questions 7 and 9.
3. The following is a definition of the Common
Law of blasphemy:
"The crime of blasphemy is committed by a
person who intentionally makes public words, pictures or conduct
whereby the doctrines, beliefs, institutions, or sacred objects
and rituals of the Church of England by law established are denied
or scurrilously vilified by means of objectively contumelious,
violent or ribald conduct or abuse directed towards the sacred
subject in question, likely to shock and outrage the feelings
of the general body of Church of England believers in the community."
Should it be amended so as to provide protection
to other Christian groups and other faiths? If so, how? Or should
it be repealed, and if not why not?
My lord Chairman, I do not believe that the
law of blasphemy can be extended to provide protection to other
faiths because blasphemy is an offence defined by specific Christian
criteria. Moreover, within the Christian community (of varying
denominations) there are varying interpretations of what constitutes
blasphemy and so it is a difficult concept to pin downspiritually
as well as legally. The legal understanding of blasphemy has undergone
changes of focus during its history which were summarised well
by Mr Slack in response to the Bishop of Portsmouth (section 289).
I would regard the blasphemy law as highly problematic when only
applied to the Church of England and cannot envisage any consensus
as to its meaning and application in the law among different Christian
denominations and different faith communities.
Many within the non-conformist Christian traditions
believe that the law on blasphemy should be repealed for the good
of the church. This is not because blasphemy is positively regarded;
Christians do not actively want their faith and/or God vilified.
The issue is whether it should be criminalised in law. Many would
argue that a law against blasphemy depicts the church as a tender
plant that cannot be criticised or as part of the establishment
which also cannot be criticised. Neither is seen as appropriate
or helpful. I recognise, however, the "the good of the church"
is not a legal reason for abolishing a law! It is however, related
to the freedom of speech which includes the freedom for religious
and theological controversy.
At this point, I do want to acknowledge the
pain experienced by many Christians in a society where their beliefs
are not always respected. Moreover, that the Christian community
has lost the confidence gained from being a majority faith as
it has become a much smaller proportion of society. I am unconvinced,
however, that there is appropriate recourse for this pain within
the law and prefer that the Church find other ways to respond.
I do not believe that legislation against such
forms of offence implied in the blasphemy legislation is appropriate
or necessary. Consequently, I believe that the law on blasphemy
should be repealed.
Furthermore, I recognise that what is being
proposed is that this law be repealed in the context of introducing
legislation concerning religious hatred. A law to protect equally
all religions in our multi faith society. I would entirely commend
the commitment to equality of treatment for all faiths. Further,
I recognise that it would also make equal another unequal situation
in that currently Jews and Sikhs are afforded protection under
the race relations legislation while Christian, Buddhists, Muslims
and others are not. In this country today, people of different
faiths are experiencing the reality of incitement to religious
hatred and this makes necessary the bill concerning religious
In its submission to this committee, the Methodist
Church stated that "if there is adequate legislation concerning
incitement to religious hatred, then a blasphemy law is unnecessary."
This would seem to concur with the view of Dr Sedgwick and Mr
Slack who accept a decision being made at the same time on blasphemy
and religious hatred (rather than religious hatred first and,
if successful, on blasphemy second) only as a practical necessity.
However in my opinion, there are many within the nonconformist
traditions that would uphold the appeal of the blasphemy laws,
for the reasons stated earlier, as a separate matter to the bill
on incitement to religious hatred. To clarify this position, support
for a repeal of the blasphemy law would not be dependent on the
law against incitement to religious hatred. Support for the law
against incitement to religious hatred would also stand in its
own right, for the reasons given above.
4. What do you (and others) perceive to be
the mischief which legislation should criminalise?
Essentially the mischief is perceived to be
against people or groups of people defined by religion or religious
allegiance. An example might be a public rally where those speaking
stir up hatred against a religious group leading directly to those
hearing attacking people of that faith.
A further example of mischief might be incitement
to religious hatred through publications including leaflets which
are widely distributed. For example, the recent campaign by the
BNP to "keep Britain free of Islam" might be examined
in this light.
I would not expect the mischief to include vilification
of religious beliefs unless this is directly related to incitement
to hatred. To continue the example of the public rally, if the
speeches denounced particular beliefs and gave this as a reason
for hatred leading to attack.
In this country it is important to emphasise
freedom of speech, and so to make a strict definition of what
is criminal and what is simply offensive rhetoric. This is done
through linking speech or publication with causing or intending
to cause hatred.
I believe that people of faith would respond
positively to this bill in part because it implies that faiths
and faith communities are valued in our diverse, multi faith society.
However, this is not a reason in itself for considering passing
legislation. Clearly it is to define and criminalise mischief
on the grounds of religious hatred, not to affirm religion but
to protect religious persons and groups.
If this current bill were to become law, I anticipate
a certain degree of frustration on behalf of people of faith at
its inability to prevent malicious speeches and publications which
stop short of incitement to religious hatred. I am aware that
controversial groups are often very well informed as to what is
strictly legal and what is not. They would be capable of offending
within the strict limits of the law. If this bill is passed, it
may raise expectations that public vilification and insult of
religion will be punishable by law. My understanding of the bill
is that this will not be the case and so there may be issues around
5. The Government (in the Anti-terrorism,
Crime and Security Bill) and Lord Avebury in his Bill have proposed
the solution of adding "religious" to the existing legislation
on racial hatred. Is this appropriate? Are there other ways to
achieve the same objective?
It might be helpful to amend the existing bill
because due to it having been in place for years, the implementation
of the law is practised and clear. This would be in contrast to
establishing a new and entirely independent bill on religious
hatred. The simpler option may be the preferable option.
It is important to note the link that often
exists between "religious" and "racial" whether
in terms of hatred or discrimination. This is clearest in the
case of Jews and Sikhs who are afforded protection by law through
race legislation. It is also often the case that Muslims belong
to minority ethnic groups and it is sometimes hard to separate
the cause of the hatred they sometimes experience as either racial
or religious. In addition, in the Derby Report on religious discrimination,
it was noted that black Christians are more likely than white
Christians to have experienced religious discrimination. Again,
implying a possible link between the two. It may be appropriate
therefore when adding religious to racial hatred to consider the
possibility of prosecution of a case of religious and racial hatred.
In particular cases, it might be difficult to discern which choice
to make. A parallel example from current legislation against racial
and sex discrimination is when a black woman must assess the discrimination
she is suffering and try to discern whether the root of the discrimination
is gender or race. This is often a difficult decision to make.
Are special provisions needed to cope with publication
of hate material on the Internet?
I understand that legally, from the point of
view of both policing and the courts, the internet is a practical
and logistical nightmare not least because of its international
nature. Taking the example of prosecutions for pornography on
the internetthese are dependent on international liaison.
I cannot imagine that there would be international agreement on
religious offences. In practice I would suggest that special provisions
for publication of hate material on the internet may well be unenforceable.
6. Have your members ever been the victims
of incitement to religious hatred? Please give details.
My lord Chairman, I believe that the majority
of Christians would see this bill as primarily protecting people
of other faiths, having not experienced or heard of cases of incitement
to religious hatred against Christians in this country (as opposed
to strong criticism aimed at Christians or Christianity). Mention
of religious hatred is most likely to trigger thoughts of post
September 11 events where Muslims have sometimes been publicly
denounced and have reported experience of verbal and physical
attacks. This does not undermine Christian commitment to this
bill, however, because self interest is not the motivating factor,
rather it is the desire to see justice and freedom for all in
In addition to this comment, I would like to
outline details of situations where members of the Christian community
may have been victims of incitement to religious hatred. It would
be appropriate if these comments were also considered to be a
response to the question concerning Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism,
Crime and Security Act 2001. After due consideration, it may be
decided that the offences may more appropriately come under that
legislation. The discussion will highlight key areas of concern
for many Christians in response to the scope of this inquiry,
namely conversion and evangelism.
Religious conversion is usually understood to
be when a person leaves one faith and enters another and this
is often regarded as controversial in a multi faith society. While
conversion is largely experienced as a spiritual event by an individual,
in practice, it has social implications and by its nature it is
disruptive of established communities. In the experience of churches
in the UK, conversion to Christianity may be opposed by families
and sometimes wider community networks. This is often resolved
amicably, but there are instances where the individual is put
under pressure by verbal or physical attack. There was a case
recently where a young woman was abducted outside a church because
she had become a Christian. Before being allowed to go free, she
was beaten by her abductors. She has now moved from London and
is living anonymously in Scotland. Such attacks may be incited
by others who oppose conversion, with implications of incitement
to religious hatred.
Converts need protection of the law but they
can be seen as a "grey" area. For example, might it
be said that they are targeted for being Christian, or for not
being, for example, Muslim? If there are issues concerning the
definition of religion, and I believe there are, there may also
be issues regarding the classification of converts. If we consider
the example of British rule in India where people were classified
and accorded legal status on the basis of religion, then converts
caused the system difficulties. This continues to the present
day when dalits converting to Christianity or Buddhism
are not recognised as "scheduled class" and therefore
not able to access opportunities for education through policies
to promote the cause of dalits. While this example does
not have direct bearing on the situation here, it highlights the
ambiguity of the place of converts in law.
In the matter of conversion, as well as the
individuals who convert, there are often what might be termed
"agents of conversion". Within the Christian community
this may include some people who act as evangelists. One colleague
of mine, a convert from a Hindu family himself, is committed to
sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others from an Asian background.
He seeks to be ethical in his approach and to avoid proselytising
but is regarded as a controversial figure. Following the conversion
of some individuals, he has been at the receiving end of a letter-writing
campaign which has included threats to his person. All who evangelise
must do so responsibly and ethically and must accept criticism
and opposition. There are, however, limits as to what might be
deemed acceptable opposition to propagation of one's faith and
there may be the potential for this, in extreme cases, to be considered
as being religious hatred.
A question that needs to be asked is whether
such offences are most suitably covered by laws against harassment
and violent crime. Whether or not these crimes should be tried
as religiously aggravated with the possibility of harsher sentencing.
Would people in this situation opt for trying to prove incitement
to religious hatred with its heavier penalties? I am afraid I
have questions on these matters rather than answers.
7. Does Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism,
Crime and Security Act 2001 deal successfully with any mischief
of which you are aware? Is there any evidence that something more
than that Section is needed to deal with cases which it does not
My response to this question is written above.
8. Are there any lessons to be learnt from
the operation of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987?
On the positive side, the Public Order Order
does not appear to have restricted open debate and the expression
of views and so concerns about limitations of free speech are
not upheld. However, and I speak as someone who keeps up to date
with current affairs on this matter through the media (that is,
I am not an expert) it would seem that the Public Order Order
has failed in some ways. Each year, there is public disorder and
expression of "religious hatred" during the marching
season, or the case of harassment of children attending the Holy
Cross Primary School in Belfast and other forms of harassment
that were linked to this situation. While I might comment that
the legislation does not do wrong (that is, hinder free speech)
I am not sure how effective it is at protecting against religious
9. The Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction
Act of 1860, in Section 2, makes it an offence to conduct "riotous,
violent or indecent behaviour" in any registered place of
worship at any time. Is it worth preserving this law, which although
rarely used provides rather more protection than other Public
My lord Chairman, places of worship are sometimes
subject to specific attack or offensive behaviour and there may
be attempts to disrupt or prevent worship. This may also include
desecration of places of worship or objects held sacred by people
of faith. It is possible, however, that this could be regarded
as a function of religious hatred and therefore be covered under
the proposed legislation or as a religiously aggravated offence.
This would render the existing law unnecessary.
In addition, when considering preserving this
law, it would be worthwhile to explore what is meant by a "registered
place of worship" and what system could be developed for
registering places of worship. In the debate on incitement to
religious hatred, the issue of defining religion has been identified.
In its written submission to you the Methodist Church does not
support either a list of religions or a water-tight definition
of religion but nominates a preference for guidelines while recognising
the difficulties that would ensue. Consequently, there would be
similar difficulties with regards to defining places of worship
that would be legally registered.
I believe that the bill under consideration
and Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001
precludes the necessity for preserving this law.
29 July 2002