Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the United Religions Initiative

  The United Religions Initiative UK (URI-UK) is an interfaith movement connected to URI globally. Its stated purpose is ". . . to promote enduring, daily interfaith co-operation, to end religiously-motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings".

  We are very concerned about the incidences of conflict in which there is a religiously-motivated element, and we believe that the law does need to address such issues urgently. However, the existing law on blasphemy is inadequate (and to a certain extent has fallen into disuse). The proposals for a law on incitement to religious hatred are to be welcomed, and we believe that these proposals can be perfectly compatible with protecting open debate on religious issues. We offer these comments for the committee's attention in this context.


  1.  The current law on blasphemy has distinct problems, namely:

    (a)  its scope does not extend to the range of faith and spiritual traditions now present in the UK, nor can it be easily extended to other faith positions;

    (b)  the lack of willingness to apply the law on blasphemy in the changing social and religious environment has itself undermined its purpose. Laws that are not enforced fall quickly into disrepute, and it is hard to comprehend how the law on blasphemy could be properly applied in the current context.

  2.  We would hesitate to endorse the abolition of the distinct offence of disturbing a religious service or religious devotions unless there are clear safeguards. This issue is potentially one of the most inflammatory ones. Fortunately there are few instances of religious services being disrupted, but we would not wish this to become a legitimate "tactic" for protest groups of whatever persuasion.


  3.  We do need to take seriously the concerns of those who believe that a law on religious hatred could encroach on free speech, theological debate, academic inquiry, evangelism or even satire. But we also take the view that there are distinctions that can be made between proper debate and incitement to religious hatred. We would ask the committee to note the following:

    (a)  some organisations are against any formal recognition of religious communities and any specific protection for religious belief and practice. We believe, in contrast, that religious identity is an important social reality, just as much as racial identity. For example, many Muslims feel that the law that protects racial minorities is circumvented by groups hostile to Islam, since it can be claimed that Muslims are not a racial minority. We have heard of many instances of hostility to, and attacks upon, Muslims (and similarly, attacks on Sikhs who are apparently confused with Muslims in the minds of some).

    (b)  There have been examples of inflammatory remarks in the public domain, directed particularly at Muslims and Jews, which we believe could be likely to incite violence. This is important to note, since authentic academic inquiry or theological debate is of an entirely different order.

    (c)  We believe that the clear distinction that can be made between proper debate and incitement to religious hatred may be based on the intent, context and impact of any remarks or actions. To call for attacks on members of a certain religious group would clearly be an offence, as would generalised remarks likely to demonise a particular community in such a way that they would be subject to hatred and/or violence. So, to put forward the proposition that increased immigration by non-Western cultures or faith groups might hinder social cohesion may be considered a legitimate subject for debate; whilst calling for particular faith groups to be deprived of their existing entitlements as citizens would be an incitement to hatred. The context is important, and we would look to issues such as the inflammatory use of language to be critical.

  4.  Laws protecting religious belief and practice should not be seen in simple human rights terms. Religious adherence must be within the framework of civil law generally. Thus, we would not like to see the situation develop where any religious practice could be claimed as a "right" and thus could override other legislation. Examples might include drug use, the carrying of weapons, polygamy, etc. These are properly matters for parliament, and to give religious groups preferential rights would be likely to cause undue conflict.

  5.  There are many offences against religious codes that should properly be dealt with only as matters internal to each religious community and we should be wary of extending the law too far into the protection of specific beliefs or practices, as distinct from the protection of religious belief and practice as such.

  6.  The test of good law is not simply its appeal to public opinion. Law has an educative role, and we believe that a law on religious hatred, properly framed, could help to reinforce efforts to foster respect and understanding between diverse religious communities.

  7.  Finally, we note that the legislation has to be robust without being draconian, but the problems of drafting robust legislation should not deter us from offering proper protection to all of our religious and faith communities.

8 July 2002

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