UK Religious Hate Law Will Harm Free Speech, Critics Say

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

( - The British parliament is considering legislation that would make it illegal to incite racial hatred, despite strong opposition from critics ranging from popular comedians to conservative Christians.

Islamic organizations have been pressing for the measure, claiming it was necessary in the face of anti-Muslim sentiment they say has grown since the 9/11 terror attacks.

But Christian campaigners argue that the provision could prevent them from speaking out against such abuses as the Islamic law requirement of capital punishment for apostates.

The proposal unveiled in the House of Commons as part of a wide-ranging crime bill makes it illegal to write for dissemination, broadcast, preach or cite passages from the Bible or the Koran in a way that is deemed to spread hatred by being "threatening, abusive or insulting."

Opponents say the measure is wide open to misinterpretation and abuse, pointing out that the bill defines religious hatred loosely as "hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief."

A coalition of critics includes politicians, academics, lawyers, Christian groups, humanists and comedian Rowan Atkinson, the star of the Mr. Bean and Blackadder television series.

Their campaign was launched Monday night in London, where participants argued that the measure could undermine the freedom to criticize, to evangelize and to satirize.

Barnabas Fund, an international charity working with Christians in Islamic societies, has been a driving force behind the campaign.

The group's advocacy manager, Paul Cook, said there was "a real danger that this law could be used by extremists to silence organizations like ourselves from highlighting the persecution of Christians and other human rights abuses which occur within some religious communities."

The Barnabas Fund has highlighted specific potential problems that could arise from passage of the provision.

Pointing out that Muslims who convert to another faith risk execution under shari'a law, and that some Hindus are treated as "untouchables" under that religion's caste system, the group said the law could be used to stop anyone from speaking out on behalf of people who suffer in those ways.

Wilfrid Wong of the Jubilee Campaign, a group also involved in lobbying for the persecuted church, said the measure appeared to be a government attempt to win back Muslim voters' support lost because of Islamic opposition to the Iraq war.

"Although no reasonable person wants religious hatred to be incited, there is no way that the incitement of religious hatred can be defined in law so clearly and narrowly that such legislation is not grossly misused as a means of censoring fair comments and criticisms of religion and certain religious practice," Wong said.

Opposition to the legislation comes from across the political spectrum, and members of parliament (MPs) from the ruling Labor Party and the opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrats are supporting the campaign.

Atkinson, the comedian, raised concern about how the law could affect his profession.

"There is an obvious difference between the behavior of racist agitators - who can be prosecuted under existing laws - and the activities of satirists and writers who may choose to make comedy or criticism of religious belief, practices or leaders, just as they do with politics," he said.

The minister responsible for the legislation, Home Secretary David Blunkett, reacted to the criticism by defending the legislation and its intentions.

He told lawmakers the measure would help people to practice their religion without fear. It would not apply to those trying to convert people to a different faith, criticizing the beliefs of others or telling jokes about religion, he said.

The government tried to insert the proposal into an anti-terror bill in 2001, but failed.

This time it has again made it part of a broader piece of legislation, the Serious Organized Crime and Police Bill, much of the rest of which is supported by opposition parties.

"Many observers suspect that the clauses on incitement to religious hatred were included in this otherwise unrelated bill to help the government get this controversial issue through parliament," Barnabas Fund said in an earlier statement.

"Pressure will be put on MPs not to risk losing the whole bill, which contains many other matters that many MPs consider important and necessary, by delaying it arguing over one tiny part."

Conservative Party shadow home secretary David Davis said his party would support the bill as a whole, but work to remove the incitement to religious hatred section.

Earlier, the head of the Muslim Council of Britain, a mainstream umbrella body, said in a radio program that defaming the character of the prophet Mohammed should be illegal under the proposed law because it was an insult to Muslims.

Under controversial legislation in the Australian state of Victoria, two Christian pastors were taken before a tribunal last year after leading a seminar which Muslim complainants said had vilified their faith.

The complaint was brought under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, introduced by the state government in 2002 despite the strong misgivings of many Christians and others.

The pastors are still awaiting a verdict in the case, which some observers regard as a legal challenge to Christians' freedom to question the validity of other religions.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow