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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 July 2005, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
Enthusiasm fades for hatred bill
By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs correspondent

Muslims praying
The bill would criminalise religious hatred

The response to the BBC News website's poll throws up some interesting questions about the government's strategy to interrupt the process by which religious extremism is created in our society.

Its religious hatred bill, currently on a slightly rocky passage through parliament, would outlaw words or actions - including broadcasts - that were likely or intended to stir up religious hatred. It would extend the sort of protection already enjoyed by Sikhs and Jews to members of other faiths, notably Muslims.

POLL DETAILS
Breakdown of BBC News website survey results

The idea is that there's a vicious cycle in which many Muslims feel discriminated against, making some of them prey to extremism, thereby creating the alienation from the rest of society that in turn breeds discrimination. However, there seems to be decreasing enthusiasm for the religious hatred bill as the solution to the problem.

Another ICM poll, carried out for the Guardian in January - indicated 57% of people agreeing that new laws were "needed to stop those who want to stir up hatred against people of particular religious faiths". Only 36% said "people should be allowed to express their opinions freely, however hateful".

Freedom of speech

But the BBC website poll - of 1,005 people - found that support for the legislation "aimed at preventing abuse of inciting hatred of people because of their religions" had fallen to 51%.

Comedians have argued that they could be prosecuted for making fun of religious figures, and Christian groups have claimed that even elements of regular services might fall foul of the law.

Opposition - among those who thought that "stopping people from criticising those with other religious beliefs is an unjustified limit on free speech" - had increased to 43%. That was the figure for people of faith; intriguingly it was only 1% higher for people of no faith.

The fact that the poll was carried out in the days following the London bombings makes the results all the more intriguing. It stands to reason that the attacks had two main effects.

They must have focussed respondents' attention on whether the legislation really would make extremism less likely, and - perhaps more significantly - made them wonder about how nervous they should be about giving up any freedom to speak their mind about particular faiths.

Of course the results may have less to do with the attacks on London than the fact that people have had longer to consider the arguments.

Comedians have argued that they could be prosecuted for making fun of religious figures, and Christian groups have claimed that even elements of regular services might fall foul of the law. The government rejects such ideas, saying the bill is intended to protect the believer not the belief, and won't rule out criticism of religion.

The BBC website poll tackled the issue of free speech, although this time without a means of tracking how attitudes might have changed. Also, this issue is coloured by the controversy over the BBC's broadcasting of "Jerry Springer the Opera", and the opposition by Sikhs to the play Bezhti at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre last year.

People may be drifting away from regular churchgoing, and be more willing to pick and mix among the rules and exhortations of mainstream Christianity, but they're still glad the churches are there

The poll suggests the public is evenly split as to whether "broadcasters should avoid language or story lines which would or which might cause any of the main religious groups to take offence". Some 49% said such lines should be avoided; 45% said they shouldn't.

There was a gender difference: 42% of men said broadcasters should avoid transmitting potentially offensive material, compared with 48% of women.

Attachment to religious values

There are also signs in the poll that the public differs with established churches about the way they "do religion". On the issue of whether churches should ordain gay clergy - the issue that's caused a deep rift in the Anglican Church - 48% of those questioned were in favour with 39% against. However, this wide margin of support was reduced to a mere 1% among Christians.

The current debate among women bishops was also addressed, with a substantial 78% believing that women should be given high religious office.

The Church of England has just cleared the way for discussion about appointing women as bishops, a decade after it first ordained them as priests. The Roman Catholic Church is resolutely opposed even to women priests.

The website poll suggests a certain distance between the attitudes of the public and those of churches - and increased misgivings about banning people from uttering even objectionable opinions about particular faiths. But an attachment to religious values remains. Of the 1,005 people questioned for the poll, 61% said British law should respect religious values, with only 33% disagreeing.

That finding seems to chime with what seems to be the main trend in public attitudes to the established churches. People may be drifting away from regular churchgoing, and be more willing to pick and mix among the rules and exhortations of mainstream Christianity, but they're still glad the churches are there.

It's as if they're like some great department of state, "doing" religion on behalf of the public, and standing by for those moments in life when it suddenly seems terribly relevant.


SEE ALSO:
Public split over new hate laws
17 Jul 05 |  UK Politics
Religious hate law clears Commons
11 Jul 05 |  UK Politics
Religious hate law revolt fails
22 Jun 05 |  UK Politics
Q&A: Religious hatred law
09 Jun 05 |  UK
Religious hatred proposal revived
17 May 05 |  UK Politics


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