Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Christian Peoples Alliance


  The Christian People's Alliance (CPA) is a party in the Christian Democratic tradition with a cross-denominational membership. At the Greater London Authority elections in 2000, we carried support from across the faiths and from leading business figures, winning votes from nearly 100,000 people in the capital. The CPA favours keeping the present blasphemy legislation in place.

  The author of this submission has been an ordained minister for six years and pastor of a church in Hackney, East London, for over four years in a predominantly black church. He is also a member of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance and involved with the majority black churches for over nine years. He attended one of the Committee's meetings on 18 July 2002 and this paper addresses some of the points that were raised at this meeting.


  2.1  The meaning of "religious hatred" as defined by the Religious Offences Bill is open to ambiguous interpretation. Unlike racial groupings—which can be genetically defined—religious views, values and culture often encompass much more than may be observed with the naked eye, or down a microscope comparing different types of blood groups. Any suggestion that certain types of mannerisms are typically black or white because of the colour of a skin type are racist and offensive. This point cannot be made with religion, which is not measurable by laboratory science methods and which involves much in the way of an individual's personal culture and worldview. Some of these values are chosen by the individual himself or herself or defined for them before they were even born by the type of society that they grew up in.

  2.2  To attempt to bring on to the statute book a crime called "religious hatred" (which has been described as hatred "against a group of persons referenced by their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs") would be either unenforceable and unworkable, or draconian, depending on how it was interpreted by the courts. Religious beliefs, cultural values and heritage are much too diverse to define in the way the Religious Offences Bill attempts to do. Religion in the western world is increasingly harder and harder to define. The process of securing a successful prosecution would be fraught with difficulties. There are hundreds of sects and sub-sects of main religions, along with New Age, Animistic and Pagan-centred religions, many of which are individualistically orientated. They have their own individually tailor-made beliefs to suit their own personal perceptions of the world around them and would probably not be covered by the Bill's definition on "religious hatred". Because they do not belong to "a group of persons defined by reference to religious beliefs."

  2.3  Culture is typically defined as the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought. The idea of hatred towards a particular aspect of culture, again in this case religion, is comparable to hatred against an idea or philosophical thought. It would be illiberal and against the long-standing British tradition of free-speech to put at risk of prosecution someone standing at Hyde Park, Speaker's Corner saying: "I hate your religion because it is inferior to mine."

  2.4  Introducing the crime of "religious hatred" will stifle public religious free expression, free speech and debate, which are all protected under UN resolutions and European Convention on Human Rights Article 10. The present blasphemy law distinguishes between the speaking or publishing of opinions hostile to the Christian religion and speaking or publishing of anything reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible. This has already been demonstrated in R. v Lemon (1979), commonly known as the "Gay News" case. The matter was then debated in the House of Lords. This distinction fails in comparisons between "hatred" towards a religious group and what is a view based on freedom of expression. The question arises: "How do you define what is simply a hostile opinion from that which is reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to hundreds and thousands of different religious beliefs and values system?" If the proposed legislation conflates this distinction, the courts will have been passed by Parliament the onerous task of distinguishing between vexatious and justified prosecutions.


  3.1  The Christian Peoples Alliance sees a range of benefits in retaining the current blasphemy law legislation. The law at present is treated with contempt on the one hand by secularist and humanist groups wanting repeal and indifference by those who regard it as both toothless and from an ancient and bygone era. The CPA does not share these negative views.

  3.1.1  The laws help buttress Britain's Christian constitution from being unravelled. They signal the importance of having regard for such aspects as the Coronation Oath, Christian symbols on the Crown Jewels and the centrality of prayer, the Bible and highly intense Christian art, decoration and symbolism in Parliament. They point to the long-standing importance of Judeo-Christian laws and customs, which underpin democracy, shared social and moral values and Britain's open society.

  3.1.2  As the blasphemy laws are so very rarely invoked, their moral strength, integrity and deterrent effect are shown to be effective. The law has been tested in the courts and has been shown to demonstrate tolerance of other faiths, cultures and customs without any sense of feeling of national moral threat or hindrance to the Christian religion of this nation. The point is made by the fact that the first Islamic mosque was approved and built in England in the 19th century when all current blasphemy legislation was originally written.

  3.1.3  The effect of the law is similar to the public recognition in schools of Christianity afforded by the Education Act 1944. It serves to create a sense of "public space" in which all religions can express their views without fear of ridicule or being reviled. If the Religious Offences Bill became law, then some Christians will feel there was no appropriate or proper protection afforded to them. But just as importantly, members of other faiths will judge that the notion of the sacred, which has been part of the spirit of tolerance integral to the good of society, has been rejected.

  3.1.4  Repealing the blasphemy laws would be like taking away the fire grid from the fire. Society benefits when there is in place legislation that ensures the basic protection of freedoms as laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights Article 10(2). The "benefit" is not because God's "feelings" are in some sense protected, (never the intention of the law). It is the educative force of a law which declares that social relationships are damaged when regard for the holy and sacred can be openly reviled without fear of legal sanction.


  The privileged position given by the law to the historic doctrines of the Church of England affords protection not just to other Christian traditions, but also helps maintain a regard for the faiths of others. The Christian Peoples Alliance opposes the replacement of the present law by something universal in effect, which would prove unworkable and illiberal. It is not necessarily a weakness that a law is clumsy or limited in scope. Lack of "neatness" is not problematic if the law's primary intention—the maintenance of respect across society for the importance of faith—is made to work. For this reason we would favour retaining the present law, although we would judge the merits of any future reform bill on the basis of the principles outlined here.

24 July 2002

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