Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association


  1.1  The Gay and Lesbian Association ("GALHA") was formed in 1979, and, while speaking chiefly for gay and lesbian people who hold to no religion or organised belief system, it is an ethical organisation that opposes religious privilege while supporting the individual's right to possess religious or other beliefs and to belong to any legal organisation of his or her choosing. In keeping with kindred humanist, rationalist and secular organisations, it believes that the ethics of human beings should be mediated through human beings, based on sound principles of integrity, honesty, decency and respect for others. It opposes all laws that seek to discriminate between one section of society and another, especially when such discrimination is justified by religious belief or affiliation.

  1.2  GALHA calls for the abolition of the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. It opposes any extension of the blasphemy laws to other religions and belief systems.

  1.3  GALHA opposes the existing law (the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860) that distinguishes between places or worship and all other premises and places.

  1.4  GALHA further opposes any legislation that proposes a crime of incitement to religious hatred, believing that such an offence would erode progress towards more universal legislation that would protect everyone from any incitement to hatred, be it for religious or any other belief; be it for political affiliation; be it for belonging to any racial group or other distinctive group within society. GALHA believes that laws dealing with incitement to hatred for any beliefs or affiliations should be appropriate to protect people of all beliefs and affiliations or none.


  2.1  GALHA seeks an end to the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. It recognises that blasphemy laws prevent free speech and, while some may interpret sound, rational argument as fair, others may interpret it as offensive to their religious sensibilities and therefore blasphemous. GALHA believes, therefore, that, untested as such common-law offences are because there have been so few prosecutions in the 20th century, such laws are open to fluctuating interpretation, leading to unfairness. Far from being extended to other religions, the motion of an offence of blasphemy or blasphemous libel should be abolished as unworkable and unfair.

  2.2  In recalling the trial and prosecution of Gay News and its editor, Denis Lemon, in 1977 on a privately brought prosecution of "blasphemous libel", GALHA recognises how easy it was for such a law to be used against a vulnerable group within society. We further note the decision not to prosecute Joan Bakewell and the BBC for the reading of the poem that led to the Gay News trial,[8] and believe that, while, in what may be deemed to be a different climate from the one that held in 1977 such a prosecution might well be thought less likely to succeed, any changes in the climate could bring about use of the law to persecute minorities in a similar way in the future.

  2.3  GALHA notes further that, as blasphemy laws stand, they relate only to the Christian religion. There have been suggestions that blasphemy legislation should be extended to other religions, but GALHA believes this would be both undesirable and unworkable. Even if it were extended only to the other major religions, the committee will, we are sure, be aware of the very different manners in which different religions view what is offensive to their beliefs. We instance the death threat made to the author Salman Rushdie—something that would not have happened had Christians believed his work to be offensive to their belief system.


  3.1  GALHA supports the abolition of the law that makes places of worship special under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860, believing that laws exist to prevent violent or intimidatory behaviour in all places and that no one type of building or space should be picked out for special consideration. We believe this merely singles out those who practise religion as being superior to those who do not, or who seek other forms of spiritual expression that do not involve officially recognised places of worship.


  4.1  GALHA believes that the whole question of incitement to hatred should be seen as universal, and that attempts to distinguish between groups within society, and between individual groups and society as a whole, is the wrong approach. In supporting this belief, we make the following points:

    4.1.1  The law concerning incitement should be effective enough to protect everyone from violence brought about as a result of such behaviour.

    4.1.2  We question whether it will be possible in all cases to distinguish between robust debate concerning or criticism of certain belief systems and incitement to hate those who adhere to those systems.

    4.1.3  GALHA, in common with kindred organisations, does from time to time, through its media releases, its public meetings and articles in associated publications, heavily criticise religions not only for the privilege they are given in law and within the education system, but also for practices that we believe are hostile to a decent and fair society in which all human beings should be seen as equal and the welfare and wellbeing of other living creatures is valued. We instance the Islamic treatment of women and the Islamic and Jewish traditions of killing animals for meat in manners that are inhumane. We instance further the Roman Catholic Church's stance on sensible birth control, and the harm that is being perpetrated throughout the world as a result of its policies, not only in the creation of poverty through soaring populations but the needless deaths of millions of people who, as a result of their church's diktats, do not practise protected sex. GALHA feels that such criticisms would be interpreted by some religious groups as inciting hatred against individuals who happen to share the beliefs of such religious organisations, rather than encouraging robust opposition to the belief systems themselves.

  4.2  GALHA recognises that there are vulnerable groups within society, be they racially distinctive or distinguished by their sexual orientation. However, it would not support a threat to free speech, even if such free speech displayed abhorrence towards, say, the sexual orientation of most of its members. If such speech were deemed to be a direct incitement to someone to hate, vilify or do violence towards someone for his or her sexual orientation or beliefs, then that ought, we believe, to be covered by general laws concerning incitement and violence. If legislation covering incitement is carved up among different groups for different reasons, we foresee an unworkable situation, with claims and counterclaims being interpreted in as many different ways as there are religions or other groups within society.


  5.1  GALHA believes the very notion of blasphemy to be illogical and to have no relevance in a modern society that prides itself on free expression and freedom to choose among the many belief systems that exist in a multicultural, multiethnic society or to choose no such belief system.

  5.2  GALHA opposes the singling out of groups for special treatment concerning incitement to hatred, believing that all incitement to hatred of individuals or groups of people—as opposed to belief systems or other opinions—should be dealt with under effective laws designed to bring about a more peaceful society.

8   The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name by Professor James Kirkup. Ms Bakewell read this poem on the BBC television's Taboo series, leading to an attempt by Mediawatch-UK, the successor to the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association-which, with its president, Mary Whitehouse, brought the prosecution against Gay News and Denis Lemon-to have the BBC prosecuted. Back

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