Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission on behalf of Jehovah's Witnesses


  1.1  There are approximately 125,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in England, Wales and Scotland. We have over 1,400 Congregations which meet regularly for Bible Study and worship, principally in their own Meeting Halls, which are registered as places for public worship. Up to 200,000 people attend our religious services. It has been our experience that our meetings attract in some individuals a hostility that on rare occasions finds its expression in overt violence. It is our respectful submission that, particularly under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, special protection is appropriate for meetings for religious worship of all faiths. The very nature of the gathering means that, of whatever faith, the participants expect a quiet, often solemn and peaceful environment in which to conduct their devotions. Funerals are an especial occasion when disruption, whether verbal or physical, can be extremely distressing to the bereaved, their families and friends.

  1.2  It is against that background that we respectfully make the following submissions on the draft Religious Offence Bill under consideration with particular reference to Clause 1 (1) (b).


  2.1  Whilst our own attendants are usually able to persuade one disturbing our meetings to leave, occasionally some have proved so hostile and the fear of violence so great that the Police have had to be called. In cases of threatened or actual violence the police officer attending has a range of powers including the normal powers where a breach of the peace or actual violence occurs. The greater problem is where there is substantial verbal abuse and consequent disruption of our religious meeting but without actual physical violence or threats of violence. Whilst the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 strengthens those powers, it requires two or more incidents before action can be taken.

  2.2  Although an old Victorian Act, the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 provides an important protection to all worshippers. Section 2 creates the specific statutory offence aimed at "any person who shall be guilty of riotous, violent or indecent behaviour . . . in any place of religious worship duly certified under the Places of Religious Worship Act 1855 . . ." The leading case of Abrahams v Cavey [1968] 1 QB 479 confirms that "Interrupting and shouting and creating a disturbance is `Indecent behaviour' in the context of this section." See Stone's Justices Manual 8-27910. This meets the very point that we seek to make when there is material disturbance without actual or apprehended violence.


  3.1  Abolition of this specific offence may noticeably diminish the protection afforded to worshippers of all faiths. The limitations on use of the Public Order Act are clear from the leading case of Brutus v Cozens [1973] A.C. 854 in which the actions of an anti-Apartheid protester at Wimbledon were held not to amount to "insulting" behaviour within the Act.


  4.1   We respectfully invite the Select Committee to consider that this specific offence, although created in the mid-nineteenth century in a different social climate, does still have a part to play in the proper protection of all those who wish to worship in peace.

  4.2  Accordingly we urge the Select Committee that there would be no material disadvantage to the other aims of the legislation in omitting this clause from the draft Bill.

27 June 2002

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