Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

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were enacted and proved effective, this would provide the context in which the current offence of blasphemy could be repealed.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

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