That hateful religious hatred Bill

Once again the government is seeking parliamentary approval for the religious hatred Bill which has been repeatedly condemned and rejected on all sides, from far left to far right, as an unconscionable and unenforceable assault on freedom of speech and expression.

Notable features of the Bill include the absence of any attempt to define ‘religion’ or ‘religious’, presumably because it got stuck in the Parliamentary Draftsman’s Too Difficult tray. As other commentators have plaintively enquired, is Christian Scientism a religion? Satanism? Flat-Earthism? Scientology (now there’s a can of worms waiting to be opened!)? What about astrology, a system of beliefs having no rational or evidential basis and therefore not easily distinguished from other systems having the same characteristics but obviously qualifying as religions? It will be hard to exclude almost any kind of dotty irrationalism from the scope of this sloppy piece of draft legislation.

Perhaps even more curiously, the Bill includes not only groups ‘defined by reference to religious belief’, but also groups ‘defined by reference to …lack of religious belief’. The atheists and agnostics will be protected too. That’s a relief! Even the wording of the bits about ‘hatred’ is peculiar:

‘“religious hatred” means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief.’

"Hatred against"? How is that different from the more usual "hatred of"?

Then the scope of the Bill is to be sweeping: it’s going to be an offence to engage in behaviour or to publish material —

“…likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.”

Or to put on a play or film or poetry reading or, I suppose, drag act, if —

“…the performance [or the ‘recording’ or the ‘programme’] is likely to be attended [heard, seen, etc.] by any person in whom the performance (taken as a whole) is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.”

Notice that it won’t be necessary to prove any intention to ‘stir up’ religious hatred: if some policeman thinks, and a court agrees, that your speech, book, play, film, etc., is ‘likely’ to be seen or read or heard by any person (any person!) in whom religious hatred is ‘likely’ to be stirred up, whether that was the intention of the speech, book, play, etc., and however daft or bigoted the person with this proclivity for hatred, you’re heading for the slammer, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, that phoenix risen from the electoral ashes, put it the other evening on Any Questions.

There’s a widespread suspicion that the motive for persisting with this pernicious proposal is to lure back to New Labour the Muslim vote, much of it diverted into other political directions by Iraq, Belmarsh, control orders and other recent blunders. Alas, some Muslim leaders have indeed been seeking the same protection for Islam as that supposedly afforded to Christianity by the anachronistic blasphemy laws. They may have a disagreeable surprise awaiting them if this misbegotten Bill ever becomes law. It’s every bit as likely to be used against Muslims as against the adherents of other religions, and adherents of none. The fact is that freedom to criticise, denounce, mock and generally ‘stir up’ feeling against other groups, especially those groups whose members are members by choice and belief, is an essential freedom in a democracy and one in which the law should have no role. The defence against criticism and mockery should be counter-argument and debate, not a resort to the cops or the courts. Harassment and threatening behaviour are already offences.

The airwaves have been replete with eager assurances by junior ministers that the Bill, if it’s allowed by a supine House of Commons and a weary House of Lords to become law, certainly won’t be used against comedians or others who invite us to laugh at the more surreal claims of the devout in our midst. Such assurances are entirely worthless. The fact that prosecutions under the Act will require the permission of the Attorney-General prompts more alarm than reassurance. Whether or not we may rely on the good sense of the Attorney-General of the present government not to allow the Act to be misused to curb legitimate free speech and expression, what possible confidence can we have in the benign judgement of the law officers of some future government, perhaps one even more authoritarian and illiberal than what we have now? A law that relies for its sensible administration on the good sense and restraint of a politician is a bad law. This one is among the worst. How many of our bright-eyed new (but not necessarily New) Labour MPs are going to stand up and be counted when it comes to a vote?


7 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    An excellent critique of this insidious bill. What interests me is what effect will it have on the fastest-growing forum for debate, known as the blogosphere? Either UK bloggers will have to moderate our discussions, post disclaimers & hope for the best or host our blogs in offshore jurisdictions such as the USA.

  2. Brian says:

    That’s an interesting point about the effects of this nasty Bill on the freedom of British bloggers to speak their minds. I’m not too sure about exporting our blog servers to the United States, though: under the new(ish) and pernicious UK-US extradition treaty, the FBI or the CIA would have us on a private jet bound for Guantanamo (or worse) faster than you can say “habeas corpus”. I have a nasty feeling that our blogs can run, but they can’t hide.

    It’s not really funny, though.


  3. Nick says:

    Excellent post. I despair of the shortsightedness & illiberality of our leaders. Thomas Jefferson got it right – this state should make no law regarding religion.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Good article….and I agree with all the above posts….It will be interesting to see what the law makes of Dr Paisley’s web site….
    Ahem (!)



  5. Brian says:

    Alas, according to Section 2(4) of the Bill, “This Act extends to England and Wales only.”

    So the Paisleys can sleep soundly in their respective beds, so long as they don’t publish their stuff in England. And any of us bloggers who feel impelled to comment adversely on the godly will just have to go to Scotland and post from there.


  6. Tim Weakley says:

    I’m surprised that the bill should ever be considered necessary in the first place, since surely there still exist catch-all ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and civilian discipline’ laws under which anyone deliberately and knowingly attempting to stir up religious enmities could be nailed?

    For that matter, are the old blasphemy laws still in force, can anyone tell me? Or were/are they directed at supposed affronts to only that aspect of the Creator worshipped by Christians, or by members of the Church of England in particular?

  7. Brian says:


    I agree that it ought to be possible in extreme cases (and prosecutions should obviously be considered only in the most extreme cases) to prosecute under already existing laws anyone stirring up ‘religious hatred’ to the point where people have a solid basis for feeling physically (as distinct from intellectually) threatened. Alternatively, a Lib Dem — forget which — has suggested a small and harmless tweak of the existing law against racial hatred to protect those suffering racial abuse disguised as religious. That would be far preferable to this sledgehammer approach with which we are threatened.

    Yes, AFAIK the blasphemy laws are still on the statute books, despite being confined to protecting only the Christian religion, hardly ever invoked, and manifestly anachronistic. Instead of trying to extend them through this clumsy religious hatred Bill, the government should invite parliament to repeal them in toto.

    Not only have we become a ridiculously risk-averse society: we have also become a society in which it is regarded as a crime for anyone to offend anyone else. How drab!