Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Jubilee Campaign

  1.  Jubilee Campaign is a human rights organisation specialising in campaigning on issues of religious freedom. While Jubilee Campaign categorically condemns all religious hatred and incitement to religious hatred, we do not believe that it is practical, appropriate or necessary to create an offence of incitement to religious hatred. We also believe that the current religious offences in the UK, notably blasphemy laws, should be maintained as it poses some deterrence against blasphemous acts. In this submission, we focus on the proposed new offence of incitement to religious hatred, which we oppose strongly for the following reasons:

  2.  Even the representative of the Home Office's Race Equality Unit states in his verbal evidence to the Select Committee that the Home Office does not have a definition of what is religious. If the definition of religion or religious is unclear, an offence of incitement to religious hatred is extremely problematic, since this offence cannot be defined sufficiently clearly to allow for an intended appropriate use of the law but also to prevent inappropriate use, ie potential abuse of this offence. Potential abuse of this legislation is likely to curtail religious freedom as well as freedom of speech, both rights are covered under the European Convention on Human Rights which has been incorporated into UK law. We are concerned that the definition of incitement to religious hatred may be a very subjective one, for example a member of one religious community may claim that a statement, even regarding one of the basic beliefs of this religion made by another religious community was meant to incite religious hatred, even though it was not intended as such. For example a Christian quoting from the Bible the verse which states, "go and make disciples of all nations", (Matthew 28: 19) in a sermon might be accused of inciting religious hatred (and prosecuted) even though this was not his intention. There is a very serious danger that this new offence could be abused and lead to miscarriages of justice. Attempts to enforce this offence are likely to violate religious liberty and freedom of expression and result in cases being brought under the Human Rights Act with regard to alleged violations of such rights.

  3.  It is obvious that there are numerous differences between the different religions and constant debate over the merits and rightness of one religion as compared to another. These debates also occur between secularists and those who are religious. Disagreements and debates over religious matters may be wrongly construed as offences of incitement to religious hatred. In fact, those who are intolerant towards others who express differing religious views may wrongly accuse them of incitement to religious hatred as a means to try to silence them. We are therefore concerned that the new offence of incitement to religious hatred could be used to silence statements on religious matters and prosecute members of any or even no religion. Ironically, this offence is likely to be abused in such a way as to actually increase religious intolerance and hatred as it would be a handy and destructive weapon which can be used by one religious group (or even those of no religion) against another.

  4.  As a human rights organisation, we are also very concerned that the introduction of a new offence of incitement to religious hatred might stop human right abuses being reported where there is a religious dimension as one or the main element to the human right abuses. This may be especially relevant if the human rights abuses occur in another country, but also if occurring in the UK. For example, if in country X there exists, as confirmed by independent observers, widespread human rights abuses by ethnic and religious group A against a different ethnic group B which also has a different religion then representatives of religious group B in the UK might not be able to speak out against the human rights abuses because this could be construed as incitement to religious hatred and be prosecuted. For the follower of one religion, any criticism, justified or not, of this religion by a member of another religion could be construed as incitement to religious hatred. The same might apply to media reporting of human rights abuses by one religious group against another. This will have very harmful results for both human rights reporting and attempts to galvanise international pressure to stop human rights violations with a religious element.

  5.  Another difficulty is that in many conflicts with a religious element, there may also be non-religious elements involved, for instance, class, language or race may also be factors so it would be very difficult in such cases to say whether or not it is really a clear cut issue of religious hatred or some other form of hatred. The motivation is also extremely difficult to establish, for example it may often not be possible to establish whether the main motivation was racial or religious hatred. However actual harm done, for example broken bones, is relatively easy to establish. In this example, the actual physical harm done should be punished and this is possible under current criminal law. We maintain that the introduction of such a new offence is not only problematic, but also unnecessary within the current legislative framework. The current law is adequate to deal with violence and threats, for example, laws on assault, actual bodily harm and public order offences.

  6.  Freedom of speech allows the expression of differing opinions, even though others may disagree with the opinion voiced. One arena where the debate is often heated and sometimes violent is that of politics. The violent anti-capitalist demonstrations by anarchists, the poll tax demonstrations in the 80s, the recent assassination attempt on the French President and the recent assassination of a political candidate in the Netherlands are just some examples of political disagreements turning into violence. However, freedom of speech is not curtailed because of differing political opinions. Imagine the adverse impact on democracy if an offence of incitement to political hatred was created. Such an offence would become a much favoured weapon by opposing political groups to bludgeon one another with. So why not permit the same freedom for religious views as for political views? It is very difficult to see any rational arguments to justify creating an offence for inciting religious hatred while abstaining from creating a similar offence for inciting political hatred. We should ask ourselves: since we allow plenty of freedom for political debate and if violence occurs, deal with it using existing criminal laws, why not do the same for debate and differences between religions?

19 July 2002

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