Submission on behalf of Jehovah's Witnesses
1.1 There are approximately 125,000 Jehovah's
Witnesses in England, Wales and Scotland. We have over 1,400 Congregations
which meet regularly for Bible Study and worship, principally
in their own Meeting Halls, which are registered as places for
public worship. Up to 200,000 people attend our religious services.
It has been our experience that our meetings attract in some individuals
a hostility that on rare occasions finds its expression in overt
violence. It is our respectful submission that, particularly under
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, special
protection is appropriate for meetings for religious worship of
all faiths. The very nature of the gathering means that, of whatever
faith, the participants expect a quiet, often solemn and peaceful
environment in which to conduct their devotions. Funerals are
an especial occasion when disruption, whether verbal or physical,
can be extremely distressing to the bereaved, their families and
1.2 It is against that background that we
respectfully make the following submissions on the draft Religious
Offence Bill under consideration with particular reference to
Clause 1 (1) (b).
2. THE EXISTING
2.1 Whilst our own attendants are usually
able to persuade one disturbing our meetings to leave, occasionally
some have proved so hostile and the fear of violence so great
that the Police have had to be called. In cases of threatened
or actual violence the police officer attending has a range of
powers including the normal powers where a breach of the peace
or actual violence occurs. The greater problem is where there
is substantial verbal abuse and consequent disruption of our religious
meeting but without actual physical violence or threats of violence.
Whilst the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 strengthens those
powers, it requires two or more incidents before action can be
2.2 Although an old Victorian Act, the Ecclesiastical
Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 provides an important protection
to all worshippers. Section 2 creates the specific statutory offence
aimed at "any person who shall be guilty of riotous, violent
or indecent behaviour . . . in any place of religious worship
duly certified under the Places of Religious Worship Act 1855
. . ." The leading case of Abrahams v Cavey 
1 QB 479 confirms that "Interrupting and shouting and creating
a disturbance is `Indecent behaviour' in the context of this section."
See Stone's Justices Manual 8-27910. This meets the very
point that we seek to make when there is material disturbance
without actual or apprehended violence.
3. THE PROPOSED
3.1 Abolition of this specific offence may
noticeably diminish the protection afforded to worshippers of
all faiths. The limitations on use of the Public Order Act are
clear from the leading case of Brutus v Cozens  A.C.
854 in which the actions of an anti-Apartheid protester at Wimbledon
were held not to amount to "insulting" behaviour within
4.1 We respectfully invite the Select Committee
to consider that this specific offence, although created in the
mid-nineteenth century in a different social climate, does still
have a part to play in the proper protection of all those who
wish to worship in peace.
4.2 Accordingly we urge the Select Committee
that there would be no material disadvantage to the other aims
of the legislation in omitting this clause from the draft Bill.
27 June 2002