Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Open-Air Mission

  Thank you for the invitation to contribute towards the report you are involved in compiling with regard to the law relating to religious offences. Whilst appreciating the undoubted good intentions which lie behind this report, (the desire to protect people of different religious persuasions in our society is obviously a right one), I would be concerned that a change in the law, like the one proposed by the Government at the end of last year, would in fact have the potential to do far more harm than good.

  One of the great beacons that has shone from the shores of our land for many centuries has been the blessing of "Freedom of Speech". I would be very concerned to see this being eroded in any way. A change in the law introduces the possible risk that religious debate be regarded as inciting religious hatred by any and all who wish to make mischief. In our ministry in public open-air situations we are regularly engaged in discussion with people of other faiths, but we always aim to conduct ourselves in a calm and friendly manner. We always seek to conclude each encounter with a warm and friendly handshake. What an horrific thought that it might become a criminal offence to seek, however peacefully, to persuade a person to change from one religion to another. This is surely the beginning of a journey along the road to repression.

  Surely it is unnecessary to introduce new legislation when protection already exists for all people regardless of whether they adhere to any particular religion or none. I believe it is already a criminal offence to incite a crime against another person, whether or not religion is the cause.

  Finally, could I also say that it seemed to me, that one of the weaknesses of the Government's Bill last year was the complete omission of any definition of religion. This might have paved the way for any extreme group to have demanded prosecution against anyone who dared to raise a voice against them.

17 June 2002

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