Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)




  460. If I could press you a little. Dr Horrocks said that he certainly would not be in favour of a law on incitement to religious hatred which extended the same protection to other faiths which the blasphemy law gives to the Church of England. Would you agree with that? Are you happy to see a society in which other faiths can be blasphemed?
  (Mr Masom) No. I think where I would be concerned and I think all Christians would be concerned is that there are conflicting beliefs within the major religions. We have to say as Christians that the Bible makes certain very strong statements about the Lord Jesus Christ, that he is not only the son of God, he is God the Son and he is part of the triune God. That is directly at conflict with the beliefs held by certain other major faiths. Likewise, Jesus did say, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." As evangelical Christians we have to take that as read. We clearly understand that not everyone in even the Christian tradition would interpret those things in quite the same way as evangelicals would and we clearly understand that some of those very authoritative, very definite statements are potentially offensive or conflicting with what other faiths believe. So I certainly would be very happy as an individual if you were looking to protect adherence of other faiths from religious hatred and religious abuse, but if that prevented historic Christian doctrines being proclaimed I think it would be completely unacceptable to the vast majority of Christians.
  (Dr Horrocks) My Lord Chairman, may I also make the point that perhaps we are in danger of here, of confusing two different things. Blasphemy in our reading is one thing; religious hatred is another. They overlap but our position has been formulated by the fact that we definitely believe that a law of blasphemy needs to be retained at all costs. Religious hatred is not necessarily the same thing.

  461. No, indeed, we do not think they are the same thing.
  (Bishop Wayne Malcolm) When you posed the question to Grant, you suggested that Don had said that he did not want to see the same privileges extended to other religions and would he be content to see a society in which other religions were openly blasphemed. I just want to say for the record that I do not think that is what Don was saying or suggesting at any point.

  Chairman: No, they were two separate questions. Please allow me to clarify that.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  462. Going back to Grant Masom's point, my dilemma is that I do have to ask myself: Do the Christian churches need this prop to live a public life?
  (Mr Masom) No. At the end of the day, the laws and structures of our country are based on a broadly Christian world view historically and I think there would be a perception that there has been a process of erosion of that. As I say, it is not a question of what you would do if you were starting from a blank sheet of paper; it is a question of what messages it sends when you look to tamper with what is there. So I do not think it is a question of a prop; I think it is a question of you send a signal that certain things are acceptable which were previously unacceptable.

Lord Avebury

  463. Do you agree that there is a widespread misapprehension amongst members of the evangelical community that the law of blasphemy inhibits conduct which in fact it does not. That is to say, to use the words of Mr Masom, "something that would offend". It is quite possible under the existing law of blasphemy to say things that are grossly offensive to many Christians: "the last temptation of Christ" or something like that. This widespread misapprehension, mainly if not entirely amongst members of the evangelical community, you say gives people a feeling of protection which they do not in fact enjoy. Is that not so?
  (Dr Horrocks) I would argue that we do extend that to some extent. The last really serious prosecution was of course the Gay News, which was won. In fact this was also confirmed in a European case which was not that long ago, that Britain had a right to have blasphemy laws.

  464. So you do not think anything which has been broadcast or published since the Gay News case has been grossly offensive to Christians?
  (Dr Horrocks) If I may refer to an example which I was hoping to have the opportunity to raise at some point and this may be the point to raise it. Of course there was the not so well publicised case of Peter Tatchell trying to bring up, 25 years after the Gay News case, the poem there by James Kirkup "Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name." Together with a group that he assembled, they stood on the steps of St Martin's in the Field in June and let it be widely known that they were going to broadcast this poem once again, inviting prosecution. As far as we were concerned, the law that was affirmed in 1977 should have been upheld. In pursuance of that, we did two things: first of all, we took out an injunction and, secondly, we went down in person. I went down with some of my colleagues to confront Peter Tatchell in Trafalgar Square. It was interesting that Peter Tatchell's platform was built on freedom of speech; in other words, he was saying, "Get rid of this law because (a) if no one is going to act on it then it is useless and (b) we need to be able to say whatever we like about anything at all." On that occasion, the judges refused to give the injunction but they did agree a judicial review and ordered cameras to be placed in Trafalgar Square, and that judicial review is still continuing. I requested two police superintendents to act as soon as the poem began to be read, because I was standing right there and I could hear it being read and it is the most offensive thing . . . Well, I would not wish any of my church to read or to see that poem, but, nevertheless, I have read it and I know what it says. As soon as it began to be read, I asked the police to act in accordance with the law. The police superintendent said, no, they were not prepared to act unless there was evidence that public disorder was going to take place. I then said to the police superintendent, "Are you inviting me to attack Peter Tatchell? in which case you will then consider that the law ought to be implemented." In other words it is those who are most vociferous, those who shout loudest, those who are most violent or those with whom it is perceived they are going to have trouble who get their way. If I could just append to that story another story which I also wanted the opportunity to mention today which shows the irony and the mess that we are in over this. I actually debated with Peter Tatchell on the steps, in front of the cameras, the question over his placard which said, "We Want Freedom of Speech." I said to Peter Tatchell, "Why are you demanding the rights that you do not allow to other people?" and I referred him to the previous case a few months earlier of an Evangelical Alliance member called Harry Hammond, who, as an 82-year old man, wisely or unwisely you might judge, stood up in Bournemouth town centre with a placard that read, "Homosexuality is wrong. Let's return to moral society." Harry Hammond was attacked by a group of gay people who claimed to be outraged by his placard. He was kicked to the ground, his placard was destroyed, he was injured. The irony of it all is that he was prosecuted for causing public disorder and the prosecution came from the gay people, including one observer who came back from Australia to give evidence in the case. He was actually prosecuted and convicted. It would have gone to appeal had he not, sadly, died in the interim. There is still a possibility that that case may be appealed, though he has died. That shows the irony of the case. I put it to Peter Tatchell was he not being hypocritical in wanting for himself what he was denying to others. If you are interested in his response, it was, "Well, you should see what I wrote in the Daily Mail. I have distanced myself from all of that." I then invited him to condemn publicly his supporters, which he refused to do.

Earl of Mar and Kellie

  465. Since we are talking about things that have happened, I am very surprised by some of the comments in the letters which have come from what I am broadly going to call the evangelical community. Several people have raised the issue of the Coronation oath and others have accused me (since the letter was written to me) of treason for considering this. On the issue of treason, I find that very hard, particularly as I come from Scotland and these laws do not apply there, which causes me to remember slightly the supposed conviction for treason of Sir William Wallace. But that is a red herring. How do you feel about the idea of even considering the abolition of blasphemy as being treasonous in any way?
  (Dr Horrocks) Far be it for me, sir, to be accusing you of treason. It is not an argument we have used. Having said that, we would place a very high emphasis on the role of the sovereign, who is the defender of the faith and is the supreme governor of the Church of England, and we believe that the vows that the sovereign takes on that occasion are very, very important, so we would attribute huge weight to them. We have not talked in terms of treason.

Lord Grabiner

  466. Your real complaint, I think—and I am sure you will correct me if I am wrong—is not so much about the existing state of the law, which I understand you to be strongly in favour of, but about prosecutorial discretion. Your concern is that there are cases—and you have given us some examples—where there should be prosecutions under the blasphemy law and they are simply not being undertaken and you think and feel very strongly that they should be.
  (Dr Horrocks) I would not put it that way. That is not the emphasis of what we are saying. I think what we are saying is that if you have a law, it ought to be used where it is flagrantly broken. But, let us not forget, there is a high degree of offence required in it as the law stands at the moment—and probably rightly so, because otherwise we would have cases arising all the time for sheer disagreement. We endorse the law as it stands at the moment. What we are saying though is that if religious hatred, which is a much more subjective area, comes into view in terms of legislation, then all kinds of thresholds become lowered and we think it is an unworkable thing. We have broadly supported the idea of a law against religious hatred, because why would we be against that? We are not against it. Anybody who hates somebody else, of course we would not support anything like that. We are concerned that it would open the floodgate to virtually an unworkable world, in which, for simply disagreeing or expressing views that were taken as offence by somebody else, freedom of speech, freedom of religion would be totally undercut. That is the balance that I think I would like to stress.

  467. Can you give us an indication of what you mean by "open the floodgate"? What do you actually think would happen the day after the blasphemy law were repealed or abolished, if that were to happen?
  (Dr Horrocks) If I could quote, perhaps as an extreme example, something that happened in a church close to me in Watford not very long ago. Again, I am not picking on the gay lobby but it just happened to involve gay people. The gay community became aware that the minister in that church was actually teaching from the Bible, which according to Christians and evangelical Christians is strongly against promoting homosexuality, and they invaded the church in the middle of the service and deliberately offended the entire congregation, disrupted the entire service, by doing unimaginable things which I would not even wish to go into in this Committee. Possibly an extreme example, but it happened not very long ago in a church that I know of. Of course there was a much more well-known example that made the press. It happened to a Roman Catholic church in New York many years ago, where almost the same thing happened: exception was taken to the teaching of the church on a particular issue and that church was invaded and the host was desecrated in front of the congregation. Maybe my examples there are a bit extreme but they actually did happen, and certainly I could envisage situations where perhaps a local minister teaching about the uniqueness of Christ to his congregation was interrupted, was heckled, and religious people were unable to get on with their worship in the way they had been used to in a peaceful and orderly way.

Lord Avebury

  468. Evidently, in the case that you mention in this particular church, the law of blasphemy

   was not used against those disrupting the services and therefore the retention of the law is not going to help in a case of that sort. But was it not possible in the extreme circumstances you have mentioned to use one of the other existing statutes, such as the Public Order Act or the Protection Against Harassment Act?

  (Dr Horrocks) I think very likely.

  469. So that was not an argument for the retention of the law of blasphemy then?
  (Dr Horrocks) Not necessarily. That was not the point I was making. The point I was making was that it could open the floodgates for that kind of behaviour.

  470. How could it do that, if there are existing laws, such as the ones I have mentioned, which already protect churches against the sort of conduct that was evidenced in that particular case?
  (Dr Horrocks) Because different religious groups have different thresholds. Certainly the Christian religion, in my experience—and I am not making a blanket comment here—is peaceable. We do not want to go to law, we do not want necessarily to draw attention to everything that goes on by going to law. In fact Christians are actually under some kind of obligation to use law as a last resort—okay, mainly between themselves, but, even so, there is a reluctance to go to law every time a feeling is outraged. I just would perhaps contrast the reaction of that church in Watford, which actually loved those people and prayed for them rather than taking them to court - which I think was actually a very Christian response, not a legal response - with perhaps what would have happened if that had been a mosque.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

  471. Earlier on you mentioned that our society has been built over centuries on the Christian ethic. Do you not accept now, in the year 2002, that we live in a multicultural society and that other faiths have the same rights of protection? Historically—certainly as perceived by the majority of this Committee—the beneficiary has always been the Christian church, the Church of England in this case. Would you accept, in the first place, that we have moved on to a multicultural society? If that is the case, is it not right that we should be looking, in the recognition of that, to amend rather than to retain one protection that only looks after the Church of England? Should we not be looking for extending that protection?
  (Bishop Wayne Malcolm) I think there are two different issues there. One is the issue of whether we should be looking at a law protecting against incitement to religious hatred. I think we have said all along—I know I have said all along—that we would be happy in a broad sense to look at that and discuss that. So long as our religious freedoms were preserved, we probably would not be against something like that and feel that that sort of protection is necessary for all religious groups. On the issue of the blasphemy, it is a different matter for me because, irrespective of its legal interpretation and what can be done with it legally, I think that we feel its impact in the fact that it is there, it has been there historically, and that it sends a message out to, I think, ordinary people that blasphemy is wrong. I do not think they see it in terms of "What I am allowed to do?" or "How far we can go as far as the Church of England?" or how far it would be interpreted legally. We just think that to abolish it sends the wrong message out and we feel that people would just explore the limits of that. As far as extending it, precisely because the Christian religion has this threshold of tolerance, we feel—for example in the case that Lord Bhatia brought up about the Satanic Verses—that if we extended the blasphemy laws we would open the floodgates to a lot of litigation. We feel the threshold for our faith is much higher.
  (Mr Masom) I think, absolutely clearly, we do live in a multicultural society. The point I was making was, simply, from where we start, and how in practical terms one can accommodate the kinds of protections which are entirely appropriate for people with other strongly held beliefs, not to be persecuted for those beliefs, without in the process removing the historic freedoms and protections to proclaim the Christian faith.


  472. Indeed, we are very conscious of that fact.
  (Dr Horrocks) May I just add to that, because I think it is a very important point that you raise there. We tend to assume that Britain is now multicultural/multi-faith without really questioning that terribly much. Okay, we know there are statistics which show that less than 10 per cent are regular churchgoers, but, on the other hand, there are statistics that show that between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the people in this country believe in God. So it really depends how you come at this. I just wonder: Is Britain as religiously diverse as perhaps we often assert? And we have to argue, in that context: Does extension of the blasphemy law actually increase social cohesion? Because surely that is the point of it. I noticed that my Lord the Bishop of Portsmouth mentioned a little bit earlier the point that perhaps some of this law is old and out of date and is not used much, but perhaps also we could argue the rarity of its use shows that it does work and gives us a cohesion in society which is not perfect but nevertheless is workable. I just wonder, if one extended the blasphemy law to other religions, whether the result might be mass prosecutions, a sort of juridifying of religious controversy. So we have the spectre of the judiciary having to get involved in religious controversy. With the best will in the world, I am sure my Lords would not wish that on any judiciary, to be involved in religious controversy. I think we have had centuries of that and we are glad perhaps that it is not a part of the 21st century. But also I would argue that it could have the effect of potentially "criminalizing" a large percentage of what is hitherto a peaceful community. In other words, you might even politicise and criminalize the Christian world which is relatively peaceful in Britain, but in Northern Ireland, for example, it actually polarises. I just wonder whether by doing that we might be opening up a Pandora's box which we wish we had not.

  473. A law of religious hatred does exist in Northern Ireland. I just wanted to pick up on what you said about 60 to 80 per cent of people believing in God. Of course that includes many other religions besides the Christian religion.
  (Dr Horrocks) Absolutely.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

  474. I have two questions. Firstly, do you think gay Christians should be protected? Secondly, I am a bit confused about the use of the words "faith", "belief", and "religion". What about humanists, should they also be protected under the law?
  (Dr Horrocks) The answer is: Yes, yes.

Lord Bhatia

  475. I just want to pick up on the earlier discussion we had. I would use the word "multi-faith" instead of multicultural. This country is much more multi-faith. From the evidence the Committee has taken so far and from what I have heard outside as well as within this Committee, it so happens the Muslims are very close to what you have been saying. They would rather have the blasphemy law stay as it is. I think it stems from one basic belief, that, even if it protects one faith, they would rather keep it there than remove it. There is not much difference between what you are saying and between what some of the Muslims are saying—I do not necessarily say that all the Muslims say that.
  (Dr Horrocks) I understand.

  476. I want to push that a little further. When we talk about bringing in a religious hatred law, it is not that we must have blasphemy or not blasphemy law. It is not one or the other. It is just saying that the blasphemy law, if it protects the Christian faith, that is fine for everybody, but let us explore the position of those faiths that have to face hatred by other groups of people. If a suitable law was framed taking into account two things—again something that you raised—human rights and the freedom of speech, if it was a balanced law that took care of all those groups, would you be happy with that?
  (Dr Horrocks) We have said so. During the Anti-Terrorism Bill we made substantial representation. In fact David Blunkett actually quoted us on the floor of the House of Commons because we had indicated that, whilst broadly supportive of legislation that could be framed to prevent, on the one hand, hatred being expressed to people on religious grounds, religiously aggravated hatred, at the same time could legislation be drawn up in such a way that religious liberty and freedom of speech be protected? That was the difficulty we had. We believed in that whole debate that leaving it to the Attorney General without any guidelines whatsoever, instead of writing it onto the face of the Bill, was not a possible position to hold. That is why we opposed that particular bill. And, of course, as you know, it was lost. Speaking personally now, I have my doubts as to whether such legislation could be drawn up in a way that would achieve what was wanted. I do myself, personally, wonder whether existing legislation now—particularly with the passage of that Anti-Terrorism Bill and the fact that the criminal law now accepts that a crime can be religiously aggravated—should not cover the situation, because what are we actually talking about in practice? Are we talking about disagreement verbally or are we talking about violent confrontation, scurrilous insulting (as per Lord Scarman's definition)? We would have to frame it very, very carefully as to what was caught by that legislation and what was not and our worry is that too much might be caught by it. I wrote to Mr Blunkett, after that part of the Bill was lost, offering that the Evangelical Alliance would be willing to work with his officials to see if a way could be found of framing something that was acceptable. I have to say I have my doubts as to whether it can be, but we did not dismiss it.

  Chairman: That is of course part of the reason this Committee was formed, to solve exactly that dilemma.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  477. I would not want you to misunderstand my begging questions to imply that I was in favour of the abolition of the blasphemy law.
  (Dr Horrocks) Sure.

  478. I am completely with you on the debunking of the multi-faith thing. Pakistan has a nine per cent Christian population and that is never described a multi-faith.
  (Dr Horrocks) No.

  479. I have said this before this Committee, so that is a balance. But the purpose of this Committee is not just to look at the past but we have to try to bring forward a mechanism, if we decide to do that, that will deal with the future. Speaking, again, on this point in a private but official capacity, as a Church of England Bishop, who sits up here for various historical reasons for which I would strenuously argue the retention—for much the reasons you give over blasphemy actually . . . But that is a separate issue. We have to think about the future and since 11 September religion is very much a big issue. I still want to probe what you were saying just now because it seems to me—and forgive me for putting it so directly to you—that you want to have your cake and eat it. You want to keep the blasphemy law and shelter as religiously non-conformists under the umbrella of the Church of England. I am happy to operate that system on other fronts, but you are not giving us much help on how we are trying to move forward over this issue of religious hatred in a world in which religion is a very powerful issue. Forgive me for putting it so sharply, but we are here to ask questions as well as gain the confidence of those who come to us with their views.
  (Mr Masom) Speaking personally, I do not think, in anything that I have said or that I would believe, that there should not be some attempt to protect marginalisation and persecution. I guess post-11 September you are talking about the Islamic community in that context. My only concern is that whatever you do or recommend be done to extend the scope of that protection to other faiths does not offend the historic freedoms of the Christian faith to proclaim things which potentially are conflicting and potentially could offend, in terms of proclamation of very key Christian doctrines, other faiths that do not hold those doctrines.

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