Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales First Report

CHAPTER 10: Conclusions

131.  As we have already commented in Chapter 1, the Committee's appointment had its origins in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, in particular parliament's decision not to agree to a proposed offence of incitement to religious hatred. Our deliberations have, however, gone much wider than the merits of such an offence, or even the proposals in the Religious Offences Bill to repeal a number of old common and statute laws. They have included consideration of the nature of religion in today's society and the changes in that society over the last half century, both in the numbers who follow other than the Christian faith, those who reject religious belief, and those whose religious faith is usually expressed privately. The census results show that Christianity, in its many forms, is still the faith followed by the large majority of the population. But memberships of other faiths constitute a significant minority, and it is beyond doubt that Britain's is now a multi-faith society. Intrinsic to our deliberation was consideration of the question of whether these changes to society have been reflected in the role played by religion in the formulation of morals and values and the way these continue to affect community life, and whether the transition to multi-faith was in effect a transformation to a secular society.

132.  The constitution of the United Kingdom is rooted in faith—specifically the Christian faith exemplified by the established status of the Church of England. We did not however see it as our task, in discharging our remit to "consider" the law on religious offences, to challenge the constitution or question the Church's part in it, although there is little doubt that the pre-eminent role enjoyed by the established church is probably outdated. But our own researches, and the evidence we heard, reinforce a view that religious belief continues to be a significant component, or even determinant, of social values, and plays a major role in the lives of a large number of the population. The United Kingdom is not a secular state.

133.  The question nevertheless arises as to whether the protections afforded by law to religions and their adherents continue to have relevance in the 21st century and, if they do, how they might be adapted to meet the interests of all faiths (and those of no faith), rather than discriminate in favour of some. We believe there should be a degree of protection of faith, but there is no consensus among us on the precise form that it might take. We also agree that in any further legislation the protection should be equally available to all faiths, through both the civil and the criminal law.

134.  That equality will be reinforced under civil law with the introduction in December 2003 of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations, which are drawn from European Council Directive 2000/78/EC. As this report demonstrates, the criminal law is less comprehensive. The law of blasphemy only provides protection for the Church of England, although members of other Christian Churches draw comfort from it. Race relations legislation has the effect of protecting Jews and Sikhs from incitement to religious hatred, but not Christians, Muslims (at 3%, the second largest faith community in the population) nor others, because they are not regarded as coming from a common ethnic origin. The rarely used Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 can be invoked to provide protection for properly certified places of worship of all religions, but is archaic in its construction and carries minimal penalties that cannot be categorised as having deterrent value. Finally, section 39 of the Anti-Terrorism etc Act also provides for all religions, but provides a statutory aggravating factor in sentencing rather than an offence in itself.

135.  The starting point for legislation may be the requirement on Government to enact legislation to implement the draft Council Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia, which would not be confined to incitement to hatred in the two areas so far selected: race and religion. It is impossible to forecast how this might be transplanted into UK law, but the occasion might be ripe to include incitement to hatred across the range of targets of hate crime, even beyond the list currently under debate in connection with the Decision, for example the gay community, asylum seekers or whoever incurs the opprobrium of some branches of public opinion.

136.  Since this would take the form of primary legislation, the opportunity could be seized to take account of the other two matters which have preoccupied the Committee: that is, the two aspects whereby Parliamentary "statements" could be made about matters of faith itself as opposed to the protection of those who profess the faiths. What is to happen to the common law offences of blasphemy may not depend upon legislation but upon the contemporary climate, both social and legal, which could lead to a decision to take no action at all. Whether places of worship, of all faiths, need a modern protection in criminal law is something which has become increasingly marginal. Other offences cover the majority of incidents which are seen to be offensive, but there remains a modest area still only covered by the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860. Evidently this Act is not obsolete.

137.  We support the protection of everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs, under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and we consider that the ordinary law gives that protection. We agree however that there is a gap in the law as it stands. We have examined whether there needs to be any additional protection either for believers as a class, or for the objects connected with their beliefs. There is no consensus as to whether such protections should exist and, if so, the precise forms they should take, but we do agree that the civil and criminal law should afford the same protection to people of all faiths, and of none.

138.  These are matters of profound concern in the community, or communities. There exists a series of subjects on which Parliament alone can reach decision: the debate will be intense. What the proceedings of the Select Committee have made clear is that it is perfectly possible to conduct this debate, among witnesses and members of all persuasions, with equanimity and understanding. There is recognition that the differences need to be resolved, and there is much good will on which to draw in so doing.

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