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
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
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
"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
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 communitiesfor instance Buddhists,
Christian, Muslimcannot, unless a crime can be shown to
be religiously aggravated. This anomaly would be straightened
out under the proposed legislation.
A DEFINITION OF
13. Once the case for such legislation has
been made, the difficulty then lies in defining the terms of the
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."
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 limitsthe 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.
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
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