Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from Churches' Commission for Inter Faith Relations


1.   Two strands of our inquiry are clear: amendment or abolition of long-standing offences such as blasphemy; and the introduction of a new offence of inciting religious hatred. Are there any other issues under the heading of "religious offences" which the Committee could or should examine? In particular, are there any issues in relation to offences arising out of religious discrimination?

  Given the two strands of the current inquiry into blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred, there may be insight to be gained through reference to offences arising out of religious discrimination.

  My understanding of the new offence of inciting religious hatred is that it would be strictly measured, as is the existing offence of inciting racial hatred. Very few cases would ever be brought to court because of the burden of proof concerning causing or intending to cause hatred. It may be that the benefit of such legislation would be that it would enshrine in law the value of protection from religious hatred.

  If a further parallel can be drawn with race legislation, it is the law on discrimination which perhaps has most impact on people's daily lives because it relates to employment and local authority services and is more regularly implemented. Offences arising out of religious discrimination would similarly impact on daily experiences of equal opportunities. Therefore, I would like to emphasise the importance of offences arising out of religious discrimination. However, in the case of legislation, incitement to religious hatred and religious discrimination are separate and distinct. I would, therefore, agree that while there is inter-relation between the legislation under consideration by the committee and religious offences arising out of religious discrimination, the scope of this inquiry may most profitably be confined to blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred.

2.   Do you have a view on any of the other proposals for abolition/repeal put forward by the Law Commission in 1985?

  My responses to this question are largely contained in response to questions 7 and 9.


3.   The following is a definition of the Common Law of blasphemy:

"The crime of blasphemy is committed by a person who intentionally makes public words, pictures or conduct whereby the doctrines, beliefs, institutions, or sacred objects and rituals of the Church of England by law established are denied or scurrilously vilified by means of objectively contumelious, violent or ribald conduct or abuse directed towards the sacred subject in question, likely to shock and outrage the feelings of the general body of Church of England believers in the community."

Should it be amended so as to provide protection to other Christian groups and other faiths? If so, how? Or should it be repealed, and if not why not?

  My lord Chairman, I do not believe that the law of blasphemy can be extended to provide protection to other faiths because blasphemy is an offence defined by specific Christian criteria. Moreover, within the Christian community (of varying denominations) there are varying interpretations of what constitutes blasphemy and so it is a difficult concept to pin down—spiritually as well as legally. The legal understanding of blasphemy has undergone changes of focus during its history which were summarised well by Mr Slack in response to the Bishop of Portsmouth (section 289). I would regard the blasphemy law as highly problematic when only applied to the Church of England and cannot envisage any consensus as to its meaning and application in the law among different Christian denominations and different faith communities.

  Many within the non-conformist Christian traditions believe that the law on blasphemy should be repealed for the good of the church. This is not because blasphemy is positively regarded; Christians do not actively want their faith and/or God vilified. The issue is whether it should be criminalised in law. Many would argue that a law against blasphemy depicts the church as a tender plant that cannot be criticised or as part of the establishment which also cannot be criticised. Neither is seen as appropriate or helpful. I recognise, however, the "the good of the church" is not a legal reason for abolishing a law! It is however, related to the freedom of speech which includes the freedom for religious and theological controversy.

  At this point, I do want to acknowledge the pain experienced by many Christians in a society where their beliefs are not always respected. Moreover, that the Christian community has lost the confidence gained from being a majority faith as it has become a much smaller proportion of society. I am unconvinced, however, that there is appropriate recourse for this pain within the law and prefer that the Church find other ways to respond.

  I do not believe that legislation against such forms of offence implied in the blasphemy legislation is appropriate or necessary. Consequently, I believe that the law on blasphemy should be repealed.

  Furthermore, I recognise that what is being proposed is that this law be repealed in the context of introducing legislation concerning religious hatred. A law to protect equally all religions in our multi faith society. I would entirely commend the commitment to equality of treatment for all faiths. Further, I recognise that it would also make equal another unequal situation in that currently Jews and Sikhs are afforded protection under the race relations legislation while Christian, Buddhists, Muslims and others are not. In this country today, people of different faiths are experiencing the reality of incitement to religious hatred and this makes necessary the bill concerning religious offences.

  In its submission to this committee, the Methodist Church stated that "if there is adequate legislation concerning incitement to religious hatred, then a blasphemy law is unnecessary." This would seem to concur with the view of Dr Sedgwick and Mr Slack who accept a decision being made at the same time on blasphemy and religious hatred (rather than religious hatred first and, if successful, on blasphemy second) only as a practical necessity. However in my opinion, there are many within the nonconformist traditions that would uphold the appeal of the blasphemy laws, for the reasons stated earlier, as a separate matter to the bill on incitement to religious hatred. To clarify this position, support for a repeal of the blasphemy law would not be dependent on the law against incitement to religious hatred. Support for the law against incitement to religious hatred would also stand in its own right, for the reasons given above.


4.   What do you (and others) perceive to be the mischief which legislation should criminalise?

  Essentially the mischief is perceived to be against people or groups of people defined by religion or religious allegiance. An example might be a public rally where those speaking stir up hatred against a religious group leading directly to those hearing attacking people of that faith.

  A further example of mischief might be incitement to religious hatred through publications including leaflets which are widely distributed. For example, the recent campaign by the BNP to "keep Britain free of Islam" might be examined in this light.

  I would not expect the mischief to include vilification of religious beliefs unless this is directly related to incitement to hatred. To continue the example of the public rally, if the speeches denounced particular beliefs and gave this as a reason for hatred leading to attack.

  In this country it is important to emphasise freedom of speech, and so to make a strict definition of what is criminal and what is simply offensive rhetoric. This is done through linking speech or publication with causing or intending to cause hatred.

  I believe that people of faith would respond positively to this bill in part because it implies that faiths and faith communities are valued in our diverse, multi faith society. However, this is not a reason in itself for considering passing legislation. Clearly it is to define and criminalise mischief on the grounds of religious hatred, not to affirm religion but to protect religious persons and groups.

  If this current bill were to become law, I anticipate a certain degree of frustration on behalf of people of faith at its inability to prevent malicious speeches and publications which stop short of incitement to religious hatred. I am aware that controversial groups are often very well informed as to what is strictly legal and what is not. They would be capable of offending within the strict limits of the law. If this bill is passed, it may raise expectations that public vilification and insult of religion will be punishable by law. My understanding of the bill is that this will not be the case and so there may be issues around managing expectations.

5.   The Government (in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill) and Lord Avebury in his Bill have proposed the solution of adding "religious" to the existing legislation on racial hatred. Is this appropriate? Are there other ways to achieve the same objective?

  It might be helpful to amend the existing bill because due to it having been in place for years, the implementation of the law is practised and clear. This would be in contrast to establishing a new and entirely independent bill on religious hatred. The simpler option may be the preferable option.

  It is important to note the link that often exists between "religious" and "racial" whether in terms of hatred or discrimination. This is clearest in the case of Jews and Sikhs who are afforded protection by law through race legislation. It is also often the case that Muslims belong to minority ethnic groups and it is sometimes hard to separate the cause of the hatred they sometimes experience as either racial or religious. In addition, in the Derby Report on religious discrimination, it was noted that black Christians are more likely than white Christians to have experienced religious discrimination. Again, implying a possible link between the two. It may be appropriate therefore when adding religious to racial hatred to consider the possibility of prosecution of a case of religious and racial hatred. In particular cases, it might be difficult to discern which choice to make. A parallel example from current legislation against racial and sex discrimination is when a black woman must assess the discrimination she is suffering and try to discern whether the root of the discrimination is gender or race. This is often a difficult decision to make.

Are special provisions needed to cope with publication of hate material on the Internet?

  I understand that legally, from the point of view of both policing and the courts, the internet is a practical and logistical nightmare not least because of its international nature. Taking the example of prosecutions for pornography on the internet—these are dependent on international liaison. I cannot imagine that there would be international agreement on religious offences. In practice I would suggest that special provisions for publication of hate material on the internet may well be unenforceable.

6.   Have your members ever been the victims of incitement to religious hatred? Please give details.

  My lord Chairman, I believe that the majority of Christians would see this bill as primarily protecting people of other faiths, having not experienced or heard of cases of incitement to religious hatred against Christians in this country (as opposed to strong criticism aimed at Christians or Christianity). Mention of religious hatred is most likely to trigger thoughts of post September 11 events where Muslims have sometimes been publicly denounced and have reported experience of verbal and physical attacks. This does not undermine Christian commitment to this bill, however, because self interest is not the motivating factor, rather it is the desire to see justice and freedom for all in this land.

  In addition to this comment, I would like to outline details of situations where members of the Christian community may have been victims of incitement to religious hatred. It would be appropriate if these comments were also considered to be a response to the question concerning Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. After due consideration, it may be decided that the offences may more appropriately come under that legislation. The discussion will highlight key areas of concern for many Christians in response to the scope of this inquiry, namely conversion and evangelism.

  Religious conversion is usually understood to be when a person leaves one faith and enters another and this is often regarded as controversial in a multi faith society. While conversion is largely experienced as a spiritual event by an individual, in practice, it has social implications and by its nature it is disruptive of established communities. In the experience of churches in the UK, conversion to Christianity may be opposed by families and sometimes wider community networks. This is often resolved amicably, but there are instances where the individual is put under pressure by verbal or physical attack. There was a case recently where a young woman was abducted outside a church because she had become a Christian. Before being allowed to go free, she was beaten by her abductors. She has now moved from London and is living anonymously in Scotland. Such attacks may be incited by others who oppose conversion, with implications of incitement to religious hatred.

  Converts need protection of the law but they can be seen as a "grey" area. For example, might it be said that they are targeted for being Christian, or for not being, for example, Muslim? If there are issues concerning the definition of religion, and I believe there are, there may also be issues regarding the classification of converts. If we consider the example of British rule in India where people were classified and accorded legal status on the basis of religion, then converts caused the system difficulties. This continues to the present day when dalits converting to Christianity or Buddhism are not recognised as "scheduled class" and therefore not able to access opportunities for education through policies to promote the cause of dalits. While this example does not have direct bearing on the situation here, it highlights the ambiguity of the place of converts in law.

  In the matter of conversion, as well as the individuals who convert, there are often what might be termed "agents of conversion". Within the Christian community this may include some people who act as evangelists. One colleague of mine, a convert from a Hindu family himself, is committed to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others from an Asian background. He seeks to be ethical in his approach and to avoid proselytising but is regarded as a controversial figure. Following the conversion of some individuals, he has been at the receiving end of a letter-writing campaign which has included threats to his person. All who evangelise must do so responsibly and ethically and must accept criticism and opposition. There are, however, limits as to what might be deemed acceptable opposition to propagation of one's faith and there may be the potential for this, in extreme cases, to be considered as being religious hatred.

  A question that needs to be asked is whether such offences are most suitably covered by laws against harassment and violent crime. Whether or not these crimes should be tried as religiously aggravated with the possibility of harsher sentencing. Would people in this situation opt for trying to prove incitement to religious hatred with its heavier penalties? I am afraid I have questions on these matters rather than answers.

7.   Does Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 deal successfully with any mischief of which you are aware? Is there any evidence that something more than that Section is needed to deal with cases which it does not catch?

  My response to this question is written above.

8.   Are there any lessons to be learnt from the operation of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987?

  On the positive side, the Public Order Order does not appear to have restricted open debate and the expression of views and so concerns about limitations of free speech are not upheld. However, and I speak as someone who keeps up to date with current affairs on this matter through the media (that is, I am not an expert) it would seem that the Public Order Order has failed in some ways. Each year, there is public disorder and expression of "religious hatred" during the marching season, or the case of harassment of children attending the Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast and other forms of harassment that were linked to this situation. While I might comment that the legislation does not do wrong (that is, hinder free speech) I am not sure how effective it is at protecting against religious hatred.


9.   The Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860, in Section 2, makes it an offence to conduct "riotous, violent or indecent behaviour" in any registered place of worship at any time. Is it worth preserving this law, which although rarely used provides rather more protection than other Public Order legislation?

  My lord Chairman, places of worship are sometimes subject to specific attack or offensive behaviour and there may be attempts to disrupt or prevent worship. This may also include desecration of places of worship or objects held sacred by people of faith. It is possible, however, that this could be regarded as a function of religious hatred and therefore be covered under the proposed legislation or as a religiously aggravated offence. This would render the existing law unnecessary.

  In addition, when considering preserving this law, it would be worthwhile to explore what is meant by a "registered place of worship" and what system could be developed for registering places of worship. In the debate on incitement to religious hatred, the issue of defining religion has been identified. In its written submission to you the Methodist Church does not support either a list of religions or a water-tight definition of religion but nominates a preference for guidelines while recognising the difficulties that would ensue. Consequently, there would be similar difficulties with regards to defining places of worship that would be legally registered.

  I believe that the bill under consideration and Section 39 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 precludes the necessity for preserving this law.

29 July 2002

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