Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Methodist Church


  1.  The Methodist Church supports the abolition of the laws concerning blasphemy, if they are replaced with effective legislation on religious hatred. Religions should not be listed in the Bill nor defined. We do believe, however, that it is possible to offer guidelines on the "dimensions of religion". The legislation should clearly refer to the behaviour and language of hatred, rather than to criticism or discussion, and should also cover offences concerning the desecration of sacred places or objects.


  2.  The Methodist Church has around 330,000 members and 6,100 churches across Britain. This response draws on published reports of the Methodist Conference and internal consultations. We welcome this opportunity to contribute to the Select Committee's deliberations, and take in turn the two questions posed by the Committee: whether existing religious offences should be amended or abolished, and whether a new offence of incitement to religious hatred should be created and, if so, how it should be defined.


  3.  The common law of blasphemy prohibits oral or written statements which are offensive or insulting about the Christian religion (and is largely held to apply only to the Church of England).

  4.  In a Methodist Conference Report in 1992, a specially convened working group on The Satanic Verses, the law of blasphemy and community relations concluded that

      "In a multi-faith society, a law which protects only one Faith is bound, in certain circumstances, to become a provocation to the others."

  5.  The Report commended the Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act (NI) 1970 for firstly ensuring that members of all denominations and Faiths are seen to be equal before the law; secondly not making protection dependent upon the controversial concept of blasphemy; and thirdly setting a clear limit to the ridiculing of other beliefs. Although it acknowledged that the burden of proof (incitement was not only likely to stir up hatred, but was intended to do so) was so stringent as to discourage prosecutions, the report recognised that current legislation should be abolished and replaced by something that is inclusive and transparent. It concluded:

      "in view of the availability to the author and publishers of the public interest defence, it is unlikely that a prosecution of The Satanic Verses would have succeeded. But, frustrating for the campaigners though this would have been, the gains from the clarity of the law and from the obvious equalities before the law of all Faith communities would emerge as great advantages over the present situation."

  6.  Ten years further on, therefore, the Methodist Church would therefore see great strength in arguing that, if there is adequate legislation concerning incitement to religious hatred, then a blasphemy law is unnecessary.

Incitement to Religious Hatred

  7.  As a replacement for a blasphemy law, we would be strongly in favour of new legislation which outlawed the incitement to religious hatred.


  8.  We believe that the threat of religious hatred is a reality facing many people in Britain today. The disturbances in the northern mill towns of last summer had a religious, as well as racial, dimension. In the wake of 11 September 2001 and the escalating conflicts in the Middle East, people of various religious communities have reported a range of concerns, from an increase in community tensions or abuse to physical attacks, all of which are predicated on their religious identity. The British National Party is currently running an explicit "campaign to keep Britain free of Islam" which states that "the biggest danger to British people comes, not from Afghan warlords, but from Muslim extremists living in our own country". This is another element in the reality of religious hatred for many people.

  9.  Some people have argued that the European Directive on Equal Treatment on Employment will provide sufficient protection. The Directive includes measures to tackle religious discrimination in employment situations, and is very welcome. However, the Directive will not meet the need for protection from discrimination in areas other than employment, or from religious hatred, and therefore specific legislation is needed.

  10.  In the experience of some faith communities, religious discrimination and religious hatred are closely inter-linked. Religious hatred can in fact be seen as the most extreme manifestation of religious discrimination. Significant in the empirical research into religious discrimination done by the University of Derby was that the threat of physical violence featured strongly in the experience of some faith communities, particularly amongst Muslims and Sikhs. In terms of the parliamentary process, however, legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred and legislation on religious discrimination should be kept distinct.

  11.  When Parliament was considering whether race relations legislation was necessary, there were some who claimed that such legislation would be redundant because all the offences which would be covered by it could also be brought to the courts under existing legislation. The same argument is being heard now concerning incitement to religious hatred. But few would argue that Britain's race relation legislation was a mistake. It provides necessary protection for minorities within a multi-racial and multi-cultural society by recognising that crimes connected with racial hatred, for instance, are serious enough to merit special treatment and increased penalties.

  12.  At the moment, case law has provided Sikhs and Jews with protection under race relations as ethnic groups. This means that Sikhs and Jews can bring instances of religious discrimination or incitement to religious hatred to court under race relations legislation and expect the penalties to reflect the seriousness attributed to racially motivated crimes. Those within other religious communities—for instance Buddhists, Christian, Muslim—cannot, unless a crime can be shown to be religiously aggravated. This anomaly would be straightened out under the proposed legislation.


  13.  Once the case for such legislation has been made, the difficulty then lies in defining the terms of the offence.

  14.  We do not believe that a list of religions should be placed on the face of the bill. Nor would it be possible to draw up a water-tight definition of religion. Instead we would argue that the courts should be offered guidelines on the features that typically characterise religion. Ninian Smart first developed the "dimensions of religion" which are widely used in the academic study of religion. These include the practical and ritual (eg practices such as prayer or meditation); the experiential and emotional; the narrative or mythic; the doctrinal and philosophical; the ethical and legal; the social and institutional; and the material (eg buildings, works of art). We would offer this as one possible entry to the question. However the definition of religion is acknowledged to be a difficult area, especially when New Religious Movements are considered, although this should not mean that it is impossible to draw up legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.

  15.  The Government itself has taken a similar approach to the issue of "belief". In the Consultation Document, Towards Equality and Diversity, the Government indicates that, with regard to religious discrimination, it will not attempt to define belief, instead leaving it to the Courts. However the Government does make it clear that religious belief does not extend to political beliefs:

      "In our view, `belief' extends only to religious beliefs and profound philosophical convictions similar to religious belief which deserve society's respect."[13]


  16.  There has been much vocal opposition to proposed legislation from those who fear that the right to freedom of speech might be threatened in efforts to protect religious communities from fear of attack. Even if freedom of speech is seen as a human right, it is nonetheless recognised as one which operates within limits—the example often used is of a person not having the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded cinema. Similarly the freedom of speech is not uncontested if it threatens another person's freedom from fear.

  17.  An important distinction needs to be made between theological and religious controversy, even vigorous theological dispute, and religious hatred. The proposed legislation should not be directed towards the former. Nor should it be directed towards silly jokes or constructive criticism of religion. It should be directed towards the stirring up of religious hatred that is either premeditated or, in the view of a reasonable person, is likely to result in such hatred.

  18.  Many people have raised the question of whether evangelism would be caught by this legislation. Most people of faith would argue that any evangelism that uses hatred of other religions as a means of conversion is not worthy of Christianity or of any other religion. The Methodist Church, along with many other groups, has adopted the Inter Faith Network's Code of Conduct, which enjoins respect and courtesy in dialogue and evangelism.[14]

  19.  We often hear the argument that "surely religions should be able to stand up for themselves and take criticism in the market place". But legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred is not about defending beliefs within a sceptical world hostile to organised piety. Instead it is about the right of people with a religious identity to be free from the fear of physical and verbal attacks resulting from hatred.


  20.  The Bill proposes abolishing the distinct offence of disturbing a religious service or devotions. As desecration or contempt for the rights of others to worship can also be a function of religious hatred, we believe that religious hatred offences should also include the intentional desecration of sacred places or objects or behaviour that is likely to cause serious harm or offence.

5 July 2002

13   Towards Equality and Diversity-Implementing the Employment and Race Directives, Cabinet Office, 2001. Back

14   See Appendix A, Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs, pub The Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, sent with this document. Back

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