The Incitement of Religious Hatred Bill has been outlined again in the Queen's Speech this week, and although the government claims that the revised bill will not affect 'criticism, commentary or ridicule of faiths', religious groups and Christian organisations have spoken out very openly against the bill. They have emphasised that it could lead towards restrictions on freedom of speech.
"The announcement of the Government's intention to re-introduce this controversial legislation that was successfully opposed during the last Parliament is no surprise, given Labour's manifesto commitment and election pact with the Muslim Council of Britain," expressed Dr. Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs for the Evangelical Alliance.
Similar proposals appeared prior to the election, and ministers as well as the government expressed that under the current rules for offences of incitement to racial hatred in the Public Order Act 1986, members of some religions are protected against religious hatred, but some are still not. They defended proposals saying that "the offence would not be an assault on people's rights to simply disapprove of the beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion."
According to the Government, the offence applies to "members of extremist organisations who stir up hatred against members of minority faiths and to individuals who seek to stir up hatred against those who do not share their faith."
However, with the penalties imposed being up to seven years in jail for those deemed to incite religious hatred, there is concern that this legislation could serve to even criminalise certain preachers.
"Despite its noble intention, we still consider that this legislation, unless significantly altered, is likely to undermine freedom of speech, damage community relations and usher in a new climate of illiberalism and repression," added Dr. Horrocks
"Whilst we are opposed to hatred being whipped up against any section of the community, we believe there are sufficient laws already in place through the criminal law to ensure that such behaviour can be dealt with. The Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill will in fact and in law, curb freedom of speech about which every Christian should care passionately," protested Andrea Minichiello Williams, the Public Policy Officer for the Lawyer's Christian Fellowship.
"Every member and minister of the Church of England should fight for this great freedom. With the proposed new offence we will see a chilling effect on how people talk about their faith in the public square and our opportunities to share the Gospel will suffer," emphasised Mrs. Minichiello Williams.
Evangelical Christians Emphasise Opposition to Religious Hatred Bill
Published 20 May 2005