Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from The Fellowship of Independent Churches

  The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, an association of 470 independent evangelical churches in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, wishes to submit the following representations to the House of Lords Select Committee appointed to consider the following questions:

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

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

  In our submission we consider these questions in turn:

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

    (a)  Because

    (i)  Blasphemy against the Name of God, the Lord of heaven and earth, is a sin expressly forbidden in the Ten Commandments (The Bible, Exodus chapter 20), and therefore an immensely serious matter; and

    (ii)  The criminal offence of blasphemy under English law provides a degree of restraint upon those who might otherwise be more blasphemous, and gives a helpful signal that the practice of blasphemy is neither desirable nor guiltless, but rather is shameful and deplorable; and

    (iii)  The existence of a blasphemy law which defends the honour of the living God, the God of the Bible, is a strong signal that the United Kingdom is a country whose national religion is uniquely Christian, whose culture and values are built on the principles and practices of the Christian Faith, the source and inspiration of its heritage; and

    (iv)  Christianity is a Faith which has only ever been a beneficial influence upon the people who follow it, and upon societies which promote and encourage, it is fitting that the laws of our nation should uphold the honour of God by outlawing blasphemy against the name and character of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ; and

    (v)  Our society should set an example to the younger generations by encouraging those things which are "true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable" (Philippians 4.8); outlawing blasphemy against God is one way of showing what we approve of and do not approve of, and it is good for the young to be made aware of the importance of respect for God.

  We submit that the present blasphemy law should be retained, and that it should be enforced with greater seriousness and urgency than has been the case in recent years.

    (b)  We submit that on no account should the current blasphemy law extended to cover other religions whose deities are not the God of the Bible, and in support of this would make the following comments:

    (i)   Since it would not be a logical possibility for a non-existent deity to be blasphemed, it would be inappropriate for the law to presume that it could be, by the extension of the law of blasphemy to include the different, exclusive and incompatible gods of many religions.

    (ii)  The present blasphemy law has as its emphasis the fact that it is the Name of God—God Himself, rather than his followers, who is being abused and offended by blasphemous utterance and writings. Any extension of the law to cover a diversity of gods and religions is bound to transfer this emphasis to the sensitivities of religious bodies, authorities and individual adherents. This change of emphasis would be inevitable because in our contemporary generation there are few committed followers, but there is an overwhelming public belief in "tolerance", "equal treatment" and "the rights of the individual". If the public believes that blasphemy would hurt people's feelings, and that people are entitled not to be hurt by occasions of what they may regard as blasphemy, the law, both in its drafting and in its interpretation, would be bound to reflect this. The effect of this would be that any revised blasphemy law would be used to protect religions and individuals, rather than to ensure that God is not dishonoured. This is not currently, and should never be, the purpose of a blasphemy law.

    (iii)  Although the abolition of the blasphemy law would remove a vital pillar of the moral strength of our legal framework, abolition would still be better than extending the law to other religions, since adopting the latter could not fail to bring such a law into disrepute.

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

  In our submission there should be no new offence of incitement to religious hatred, for the following reasons:

    (i)  While we agree that it is the duty of the State to protect and guarantee religious freedom, and that it is wholly wrong that someone should be harmed or threatened with harm solely because of his or her religious belief or practice, we believe that the law can and should be framed in such way as to reserve the peace and safety of all individuals without specific reference to their religious adherence. An offence which might be regarded as coming within the category of "incitement of religious hatred" should be dealt with as coming within the existing or an extended range of public order offences—"threatening behaviour", for instance. Sentencing options could be reviewed and increased if necessary without there being any need to create a new type of offence.

    (ii)  There would be a tendency for religious authorities to use any such new legislation to defend the intellectual integrity of their own religion. Criticism of the intellectual substance of their creed could be viewed as a collective attack upon their followers, likely to lead to a reduced level of public esteem. If their public regard is perceived as having been demanded, it is not difficult to imagine that those who made the intellectual criticisms would be accused either of intending "religious hatred" or of singling out the group concerned for critical attention. If any new "incitement of religious hatred" law was brought to bear in this type of circumstance, it would be bound to influence and restrain genuine discussion and inhibit freedom of speech, both among academics and writers, and on the soap-box in the market-place.

    (iii)  In a letter to the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches dated 26 October 2001, on the subject of emergency "religious hatred" legislation then being proposed, the Home Office stated: "This is not a restriction on people criticising religions or religious practices. We need to balance the rights to free speech which have been long respected in this country with the right to lead a life in which one can peacefully practice one's own religion without fear of assault." Such words are easy to utter, but both government and Parliament must ensure that the right to engage in restricted intellectual debate is absolutely preserved, and that those whose writings or speeches are cogently critical of religions and secular philosophies, and their effects and implications, do not become targets for prosecution. One sure way of achieving this would be to refrain from creating a new law specifically focusing on "incitement to religious hatred." We submit that any conduct likely to threaten or put individuals in "fear of assault" should be dealt with under general public order legislation.

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