Submission from the Catholic Bishops'
Conference of England and Wales
I am writing on behalf of the Catholic Bishops'
Conference of England and Wales. You very kindly indicated that
the House of Lords Committee on Religious Offences would be willing
to receive something from us outside the deadline, as the meeting
of our Conference department at which the matter was discussed
was only earlier this month. I am grateful for this opportunity
to give our views.
We fully agree with the position set out in
the detailed submission by the Archbishop's Council of the Church
of England. This favours the introduction of a new offence of
incitement to religious hatred, and argues that if such an offence
were enacted and proved effective, this would provide the context
in which the current offence of blasphemy could be repealed. We
agree, too, with the importance attached by the Church of England
to ensuring that effective legislation exists to safeguard against
the disturbance of public worship, and that existing public order
legislation is insufficient. We therefore do not present a detailed
submission which would repeat arguments our members already have,
and I would simply make three points.
First, it is important that the new law should
extend protection to all faiths. Bearing in mind the long course
of events in Northern Ireland, the acrimony surrounding the publication
of Satanic Verses, the disturbances in Oldham, Burnley
and Bradford during the summer of 2001 and the events of 11 September
2001, it has become clear that establishing good relations between
ethnic and religious minority and majority communities is often
a formidable challenge. In this context effective legislation
relating to "religious offences"" is needed to
protect individuals and to promote community cohesion; and we
would agree with the words of Lord Scarman in the opening to his
judgment in the Gay News case on blasphemy: "In an
increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it
is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs,
feelings and practice of all but also to protect them from scurrility,
vilification, ridicule and contempt."
Second, the retention of an offence specifically
relating to religion is not contrary to a Catholic understanding
of the role of civil law. Indeed, the second Vatican Council's
Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions
states that: "there is no basis either in theory or in practice
for any discrimination between individual and individual or between
people and people arising either from human dignity or from the
rights which flow from it. Therefore the Church reproves, as foreign
to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any
harassment of them on the basis of their race, colour, condition
in life or religion." (emphasis added) (n.5)
Thirdly, freedom of speech is not an absolute.
Of course in a free society, considerable space must be allowed
for vigorous debate, disagreement, criticism and humour directed
at even our most cherished personal, political and religious beliefs.
But it should not extend to freedom to incite racial or religious
hatred. The offence of "incitement to religious hatred"
would become available only when the language used was explicitly
hostile to religious faith in a way that went beyond the conventions
of mainstream political debate, art or humour". "Hatred"
is different than and far stronger than merely arguing against
a person's beliefs or attacking them for holding religious views.
And the notion of "incitement" requires an intention
in the mind of the wrongdoer that this hatred be stirred up, or
at the very least requires a reasonable awareness on his or her
part that this is the likely consequence of his or her words.
These aspects to the offence, together with other procedural safeguards
that could be inserted in the legislation (eg controlling the
power of prosecution), make it improbable that the new provision
would be abused.
I hope this note affirming our support for,
and agreement with, the position taken by the Church of England
is of some help.
23 July 2002