Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Appendix Extract from the second review of the Race Relations Act (1992)


  The Commission recommends that a specific law against incitement to religious hatred should be introduced and a law against religious discrimination should be given further serious consideration.

  The Commission joined in sponsoring a series of four seminars on these issues. Three were written up as a series of discussion papers and published in February 1990: Law, Blasphemy and the Multi-Faith Society; Free Speech; and Britain: A Plural Society. The final seminar concentrated on legal solutions and was held in October 1990. It is not possible here to cover the full range of issues, and readers are recommended to refer directly to the seminar reports.

  As a result of those seminars and of its own deliberations, the Commission feels able to offer comment about three aspects of the current law:

    (1)  The current law of blasphemy protects only the established Christian religion.

    (2)  There is in Britain no law of incitement to religious hatred.

    (3)  There is no law in Britain protecting people from religious discrimination.

  The Commission's role includes the promotion of good race relations. For substantial members of the ethnic minorities, their faith, the sense of identity this gives and the reaction of the rest of society to that faith and to them as believers, are of the utmost importance. Indeed, for many, identity through faith is more important than identity through national origins. Are legal adjustments needed to secure good race relations in a multi-faith society?


  It is now generally accepted that the law of blasphemy is unacceptable in principle as it stands. In protecting only one religion, it is discriminatory. The Home Office evidently prefers to leave the law as it is on the grounds that there is no consensus on what to put in its place. Our consultation reinforces the view that the status quo is unsatisfactory. However, there is no clear as to which of the two alternative options is favoured.

  Lord Scarman has given the view that:

  . . . there is a case for legislation extending [the offence of blasphemy] to protect the religious belief and feelings of non-Christians . . . In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain, it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all, but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt.

  Certainly either the law of blasphemy needs to be abolished or to be extended to protect other religions. Prior to the Gay News trial in 1977 the blasphemy law had fallen into disuse for 50 years and since then it has teetered on the brink of abolition, with a majority of the Law Commissioners in 1985 favouring that approach. The Satanic Verses issue may have brought to a head what was virtually inevitable in any event.

  It cannot be for the Commission to resolve whether ultimately considerations of free speech should triumph and result in the abolition of the blasphemy law, or whether considerations of respect for religion should triumph and result in the extension of the law.

  Leaving blasphemy law unchanged sends out the message, to Muslims for example, that their religion is less worthy of protection than the Christian religion. That must affect their commitment to this society.

  Extending the blasphemy law as it stands to other religions poses limits on free speech which are bound to be perceived as unacceptable because the present offence can be committed without any intention to outrage, and the chances of committing the offence unintentionally would be much increased by the unlimited extension of the number of religions covered. This was why the minority Laws Commissioners considered narrowing the elements of the offence at the same time as extending it to other religions. But does that strike the right balance?

  We set out these points in the hope that, when the present law is changed, which we think inevitable, legislators will give consideration to them.


  In Northern Ireland, laws exist prohibiting discrimination on religious grounds and incitement to religious hatred. There are no equivalent laws in Britain, where there are laws prohibiting discrimination on racial grounds and incitement to racial hatred. Yet in international law religion and race are treated similarly.

  Indeed there is good reason to support that, in not offering any protection in respect of religion, the Government is in breach of international treaty obligations as regards Britain. Article 20.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reads:

      Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be protected by law.

  Whilst blasphemy law is concerned with certain forms of attacks on religion as such, a law of incitement to religious hatred is concerned with stirring up hatred against persons identified by their religion. Arguments that freedom of speech should include the right to stir up hatred against persons inevitably seem limp and the more so when it is done on grounds of religion, since the freedom to practise the religion of one's choice is itself recognised in international law. No country can be said to guarantee the freedom to practise the religion of one's choice if at the same time it permits others lawfully to stir up hatred against those doing just that.

  The current law of incitement to religious hatred in Northern Ireland has hardly been used, let alone successfully. In its present form since 1987, it has been based on the incitement to racial hatred provisions in Britain which exist in the Public Order Act. They have been used rather more successfully, though not nearly as often as many would have wished. There is current controversy on this point. But there is a difference between the principle of having a law, and the effectiveness of its enforcement which may depend basically on how judgment is exercised.

  In principle, there is a strong case for saying that there should be a law on incitement to religious hatred which is uniform across the whole of the United Kingdom. In practice, there will be an increasing need for such a law if, from day to day, people are identified, both by themselves and by others, by their religion as much as by their national origin. If it is accepted that persons have the right to practise the religion of their choice, it cannot be any more acceptable to stir up hatred against people because they are seen as Muslims than to do so because they are seen as Pakistanis. The UK has accepted that right: it is enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

  A law against incitement to religious hatred could be widened to include the intentional vilification of persons because of their membership of the group. We ask for a review of the working of the incitement to racial hatred law, and the same point should also be considered in that context.

  By bringing in elements of religion into the definition of "ethnic group" in the Race relations Act 1976, the House of Lords in Mandla v Dowell Lee [1983] IRLR 209 has, to an extent, made it possible to get round the lack of a ban on religious discrimination as such. Much discrimination against Jews and Sikhs can be dealt with as discrimination against them as members of those ethnic groups. And much religious discrimination is caught by the law on indirect racial discrimination, at least where the exercise of a religion has a particular association with the country of origin. A case of discrimination against Muslims was held by a Sheffield tribunal to be indirect racial discrimination. But, as the law currently stands, compensation would only become payable if intention was proved. Improvements in the general law of indirect racial discrimination, in particular permitting compensation in all cases as we advocate elsewhere in this review, could remove much difficulty.

  Even so, a new statutory prohibition on religious discrimination might be better than trying to stretch the Race Relations Act to cover all cases of religious discrimination. Stretching the Act might not work where the religious practice at issue is that of a minority group in the country of origin and that group is not recognised as an ethnic group under the 1976 Act.

  It is anomalous that protection against religious discrimination exists in Northern Ireland, but not in the rest of the UK. But we doubt whether it would be appropriate merely to tack onto the Race Relations Act prohibition on religious discrimination for this Commission to enforce. The whole subject has ramifications going well beyond the area of good race relations.

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