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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 June 2005, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
New effort to ban religious hate
Regents Park mosque
Muslim groups have led calls for new laws
Controversial plans to make incitement to religious hatred illegal have been unveiled by the government.

The new offence gives equal protection to all faiths. Jews and Sikhs are already covered by race hate laws.

Critics say the reintroduced plans - which cover words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up religious hatred - will stifle free speech.

Ministers insist the new law would not affect "criticism, commentary or ridicule of faiths".

'Preserve tolerance'

The Racial and Religious Hated Bill would create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred and would apply to comments made in public or in the media, as well as through written material.

The aim is to protect people from incitement to hatred against them because of their faith.

But ministers insist it will not ban people - including artists and performers - from offending, criticising or ridiculing faiths.

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said: "It is about protecting the believer, not the belief."

It will not rule out criticism of religion, or outlaw the telling of religious jokes
Paul Goggins
Home Office Minister

Mr Goggins said he did not expect many prosecutions under the new laws, but said it was important for Parliament to send out a clear message.

He said: "This will be a line in the sand which indicates to people a line beyond which they cannot go...

"People of all backgrounds and faiths have a right to live free from hatred, racism and extremism."

Mr Goggins said police had told him they believed the new law could have prevented some of the riots in northern English towns in 2001.

Lords opposition?

Religious hatred is defined in the Bill as "hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief" - showing it will also cover atheists.

The maximum penalty for anybody convicted of the new offence would be seven years imprisonment.

Mr Goggins said there was a "high test" and the attorney general would also be able to veto any prosecutions.

Race hatred laws had resulted in 76 people being prosecuted in nearly 20 years, with 44 convictions.

Followers of different religions will be allowed to criticise each other
Daniel Sandford
BBC correspondent

The plans are exactly the same as those opposed in the House of Lords before the general election, with some peers claiming it could put freedom of speech at risk.

This time they form a stand alone Bill, instead of being part of a much bigger Bill.

Mr Goggins refused to say whether ministers would use the Parliament Act to force the plans through the Lords but he stressed Labour had promised the new laws in its election manifesto.

Conservative shadow Home Secretary David Davis said the proposed law would "seriously undermine freedom of speech" and would be "massively counter-productive".

"Religion, unlike race, is a matter of personal choice and therefore appropriate for open debate," he argued.

Aggravated crimes against religious groups were already protected through existing legislation, he said.

"Whilst this new law would technically prevent what many people may regard as reasonable criticism of devil worshippers and religious cults."

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris argued the plans would jeopardise precious freedom of expression.

"The government's measure would stifle religious debate and feed an increasing climate of censorship," he said.

Dr Harris said his party recognised the problem of Islamophobia. He proposed changes to ensure religious words could not be used to get around race hate laws.

Freedom of speech

The government says the legislation is a response to the concerns of faith groups, particularly Muslims.

The Muslim Council of Britain has welcomed the move, arguing that the courts have already extended such protection to Sikh and Jewish people.

Sher Khan, a council spokesman, said to protect some groups but not others contravened the European human rights laws.

"This is not protection of faith, it is a protection of those who are attached to a particular identity marker," Mr Khan said.

Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, also said the legislation would curtail free expression.

Similar laws in Australia had stirred up tensions between different religious groups, he argued.

BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford said some British Muslims believed religions must be allowed to criticise each other, and that the proposed new law could open a Pandora's box of prosecutions between faiths.

Actor Stephen Fry said the plans were a sop to the Muslim community, whose problems really centred around race, not religion.

"Religion, surely if it is worth anything, doesn't need protection against anything I can say," he said.


Your comments

My fear is that the law will not be applied equally. Although it is touted as a way to protect Muslims, I worry that people like Abu Hamza are more likely to be censured under it that Ian Paisley for instance.
Rick M, Manchester

What happened to free speech? What happened to one's right to have an opinion? It's fine to discredit and disregard hate speech, but to make laws that could possibly throw someone in prison for seven years is a travesty.
Tony McDonald, Salt Lake City, USA

So would this law put authors such as Salman Rushdie behind bars? As if a fatwa wasn't enough.
Geoff Martin, Leicester

All this law will achieve is more misunderstanding of peoples' faith. People will not be able to question key elements of religion as it may be offensive. I feel that it will restrict the right of people to evangelise as that involves telling someone with a different faith that they are wrong, and that may be considered offensive.
J Hull, London

We have these laws in Australia and although I am a supporter in principal, I must say that they have been misused by all religious groups after legitimate criticism be it Muslim, Christian or Jews.
John, Melbourne, Australia

For how long have religions reacted against each other? Though it is undesirable, nothing will remove religious conflicts from society. This law pursues an unachievable goal.
Ian, Canterbury, UK

The potential evils of such Big Brother legislation (for that is what it is) greatly outweigh the benefits it is supposed to ensure. We need to respect the individual who believes in this or that faith, yet we must be free to criticize it without restraint; for some religions and ideologies foster cruel and wicked practices.
Edwin de Kock, Edinburg, Texas, USA

As an equal opportunity atheist I criticise all religions that put their faith in an omnipotent being. Will I be protected from anti-atheist bigotry?
John Simmonds, Portsmouth, Hants

Clearly if you want to eradicate something from society, then making it illegal is a sure fire winning way of doing that. After all, our prisons are empty, all drivers obey speed limits, nobody gets murdered, drugs are a thing of the past and who has heard of anybody being burgled? I find it extraordinary (regularly) that our country is seemingly run by imbeciles (assuming I'm not breaking any laws by expressing this point of view). How about a "per time" charge - maybe frequent racists could pay 1.34 per incident (reducing to 2p if nobody hears them).
Jezbod, London

Without very clear definitions there is a real danger of opportunistic abuse
Jon Cooke, Cardiff
Whilst welcoming a change in the law to protect faith communities from 'religious hate crime'; the statute must clearly allow for both theological and secular disagreement. Without very clear definitions there is a real danger of opportunistic abuse. Could those intolerant to the opinions and beliefs of others assume 'victim' status and pursue legal action?
Jon Cooke, Cardiff

Maybe we should just pass a law making all insults of any kind illegal. That way it would protect me from being insulted as a Christian, as someone who is overweight, as someone from Liverpool and as someone who is lousy at golf! I could also sue you if you insulted me for writing this response. I'm sure the world would be a better place for it.
Steve Connolly, Liverpool

If protecting some religious groups but not others contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, where does that leave our archaic blasphemy laws, not to mention legislation governing the relationship between the established Church of England and the State?
Geoff Thomason, Stockport, Cheshire

I really don't understand the fear of those who think the legislation would curtail freedom of speech. It's only aims at protecting people against religious hatred.
Farouk, Grand Quevilly, France

It would be better to identify the root causes of intolerance and tackle those
Nicola, Bristol
Unfortunately, anyone who is really intent on stirring up intolerance will probably continue to do so - they will just find other ways. Perhaps it would be better to identify the root causes of intolerance and tackle those.
Nicola, Bristol

More new laws? I thought we already had laws to combat threatening language and behaviour. On the surface I'm sure this appears to be a sensible law. But I suspect it will another nail in the coffin of free speech.
Rhett Pomfret, Colne, United Kingdom

Surely to stop religious hatred what we need is more respect for one another? That can't be changed simply through another piece of legislation.
Josh, Salisbury, UK

About time the government has taken the obvious step that should have been taken along time ago that all religions and faiths are protected by the law equally... still can't understand why it has taken this long, but a welcome move nevertheless.
Shahid, Notts, UK

A legal hot potato and likely to be very difficult to implement. This law could potentially cause as many problems as it aims to solve.
Richard Patrick, Cologne, Germany

It would be huge mistake to allow any legislation banning criticism of ideas, as opposed to immutable characteristics such as race, onto the statute book. The most extreme cases, which the Home Office assure us any prosecutions would be limited to, are already covered by existing laws. This Bill must be shelved or voted down in Parliament
Arron Fitzgerald, London

This proposed legislation is far too vague in its current form
Rev C, Morden, England
This proposed legislation is far too vague in its current form and could easily be misapplied by those who don't understand the internal dynamics of faith communities. It will also create a culture of anxiety among religious leaders which may render them unable to communicate frankly about and with each other. The vast majority of religious leaders do not wish to cause offence but do want to be free to speak and dialogue without risk of prosecution.

Those of a mind to stir up 'religious hatred' (whatever that means) are unlikely to be restrained by the law since they usually adhere to a fundamentalist worldview and believe that the law may be ignored when it stands in the way of their perspective on faith. To lock up such people will usually turn them into heroes for their communities in turn inspiring ever greater extremes from their followers. Secular authorities have often had trouble with extremist religious groups. History teaches us that such groups may be moderated by dialogue. The religious hatred bill will hinder such dialogue and hence be ultimately self-defeating.
Rev C, Morden, England

Any form of speech that stirs up hatred is surely wrong. Do those demanding the right to free speech wish feel threatened by common sense?
Paul, Chelsea, UK

"Actor Rowan Atkinson is among those to have spoken out against the proposed new law, arguing comedians could be at risk of prosecution for lampooning religious figures." "Home Office ministers say this is not the point of the legislation." It may not be the point of the legislation, but it may well be a side-effect of it. Legislation of this magnitude cannot afford to be ill-thought through, and I am worried about the knock-on effect that this may well have in an already tense religious atmosphere.
Chris, Sheffield

I believe this is a law that will seriously endanger that legitimate free criticism of different religions. Who is to tell someone that the criticism made of their faith is not 'abusive' or 'insulting'?
James Croucher, Oxford

I actually agree with the new legislation. I think the point is regarding not to make criticism at all if we are living in a civilised country. As for the comedians who are worried, well I got one thing to say to them.....humour is about making people laugh and good comedians do not leave bad negative remarks in the air!
Mujtaba Tahir, Leicester

This bill will stifle discussion and debate
Samuel, Bristol, England
This bill will stifle discussion and debate. It is a ridiculous imposition on our freedom to express our views. This is a tolerant, secular country - this law is set to drive wedges between people with different faiths and different intellectual beliefs. If someone is obviously rabble-rousing there are laws already in place to deal with them. One of the most sacred things in this world is intellectual independence and the freedom to express ideas and beliefs. What next, a law that stops us criticising our own government?
Samuel, Bristol, England

I hate and despise all religions as being oppressive, repressive, fairy tales and I am vocal about speaking out against all of them. Looks like I am going become a criminal through the virtue of being myself. This is a law I am going to be happy to break.
Jason Mead, Bristol

Sadly, yet another example of political correctness gone overboard. I agree that any ratification of this bill will only act to curtail freedom of speech. I agree that any attempt to deliberately incite religious hatred is fundamentally wrong. However making it illegal will do nothing to deter the small and ignorant percentage of the population who seem unable to respect each others faiths, whatever they may be. We are supposed to live in a free society and bills like this are clearly restricting this freedom bit by bit.
Alex Spendley, Bristol

I am sick of this government telling people what they can and can't say. I understand the need to be aware of other peoples/cultures feelings and to try and respect by making sure we all get on, but this latest bill is just another excuse to try and curb freedom of speech. With ID cards and the state's ability to imprison people without trial (under terrorism laws) we seem to be slipping into a George Orwell novel. What's next? Maybe a tracking system for cars to see where we're going.
Paul, Swansea

"Followers of different religions will be allowed to criticise each other, but they will not be allowed to use insulting behaviour that is likely to stir up hatred." So that's alright then... um... what about those of us who aren't members of any religion?
Jonathan, London UK

The more new rights become law, the less rights you have yourself.
AS, London, UK

Whatever Home Office ministers regard as being the point of the Religious Hatred legislation is irrelevant. My experience as a police officer tells me that wherever certain behaviour fits the definition of an offence, there is often pressure from interested parties to use it in different and creative ways. The Protection from Harassment Act was intended to address issues of stalking and is regularly used to address a list of behaviours totally dissimilar in nature. The original point of the legislation cannot be relied upon.
Michael, Birmingham

I work for a Christian organisation in one of the most culturally & religiously diverse areas of England. I believe this bill is going to be completely counter productive - increasing tensions between faith communities rather than dissolving them. The strange thing is that I don't know of anyone who actually wants this legislation! Still, there can't be many pieces of legislation that unite evangelical Christians, gay rights, secularists, and most mainstream religious bodies!
Peter Shields, Bradford

I note the comment from the Home office that it is not the point of this bill to stifle free speech or to prosecute comedians who lampoon religious figures. However this does not provide any comfort as I know the equivalent bill in Australia was used for the purpose which it was not set up to do. In this country the bill is criminal law and prosecution would be much more severe. It will thus undoubtedly stifle free speech and sincere debate. It must not be allowed to go ahead.
Nigel Robinson, Dudley UK

The Home Office might says that prosecuting comedians/free speech "is not the point of the legislation" and it might not be the point of introducing this but that is exactly what will happen. How can you legislate between insulting behaviour and sarcasm?
V Gill, UK

I have a real concern that this bill will be constantly misused and cause more conflict between faiths than it will heal. There have already been high profile trials in Australia and the US where well meaning people have been misinterpreted and taken to court, where there was no intention of causing offence. When will the Government see sense on this Bill? I expect there will be another use of the Parliament Act soon.
Karen Blackburn, Coventry England

A law that can result in 7 years prison for using "insulting words". George Orwell would be proud (or terrified).
Johnny Gritz, London

This bill is a complete and utter disgrace and once again reinforces that this government believes people of religion are superior to people of no religion. It offers too much protection to the kind of legitimate, reasonable criticism of religion that is so badly needed when there are so many conflicts at home and abroad caused by religion. This will only give more power to the kind of people who want to ban any plays, films or television programmes that contain anything that challenges their belief. It has absolutely no place in a supposedly liberal democracy.
Keith, London, UK

Religion should not be politically legislated; nor vice-versa. Remember all the wars because of this?
Tony Fusaro, Fife, Scotland

As a Christian, my concern is that most faiths disagree on the basic truths but must be allowed to promote them in an ethical manner. My faith and (e.g.) Islam disagree fundamentally on who Jesus Christ is. Will I be able to say, publicly, he's God and the only way to eternal life? Because that's saying Muslims are wrong to believe what they do. If they're offended, will I be prosecuted? Will Muslims be able to state their own beliefs publicly? Because, in turn, they would be saying (e.g.) Hindus are wrong to believe what they do. If Hindus take offence, will the Muslims fall foul of these new laws?
Andrew Waugh, Reading, Berks

Surely there is already enough legislation - breach of the peace would seem to cover these type of offences
Nigel Smith, London, UK
Where do you draw the line? Will this law punish those who incite hatred or using insulting words against non-believers? Surely there is already enough legislation - breach of the peace would seem to cover these type of offences.
Nigel Smith, London UK

Yet again the nanny state rears its ugly head. I suppose at some point speaking will be banned as will texting, maybe we should all find a cave and some mammoths to hunt as well as communicating using the word ug, that is unless people who are called "ug" object.
Mark Fox, Doncaster, England

How backwards are the critics to this law? They themselves obviously have some issues with people of different religions. Personally, I am not religious but I could never hate someone simply because they were and I expect the same in return. This law is not an attack on free speech, but trying to rid this world of one of its biggest problems, the people against this should maybe get a clue.
Rob, Nottingham

It looks like the government has ignored the genuine fears that people expressed last time this legislation was proposed, when loose wording was seen as a religious extremist's licence to gag anyone else. If this legislation goes ahead it must explicitly only protect people (individuals as well as groups) of faith and not their beliefs, so the blasphemy laws should be scrapped at the same time.
Fabian, UK

Protecting people of different faiths from persecution on the grounds of their faith is all very well but will it also take into account the majority of us who do not subscribe to one of these religious clubs? After all, we are the most frequent victims of religious bigotry and hatred. I'm tired of hearing myself referred as if I were some kind of aberrant with no moral values whatsoever. It's time all of us were given this kind of protection!
Jim Francis, London

I believe religion is a personal thing. Being a Muslim, I neither hate the religion of others nor like others to hate my religion. However, imposing a law won't stop hatred. Society needs to change first.
Fahim Akhter, London

I do not believe that this is 'good law' as it is not specific and could easily be misused by one extreme faction or religion against another religion. Free speech must be preserved and the right to state that one religion is wrong in its beliefs must remain.
E Thompson, Croydon Surrey




SEE ALSO:
Religious jokes 'won't be crime'
07 Dec 04 |  UK Politics
Religious hatred proposal revived
17 May 05 |  UK Politics
Religious hatred law gets backing
07 Feb 05 |  UK Politics


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