Religious hatred bill announced

The government has published a bill aimed at protecting individuals from religious hatred.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which is being reintroduced to Parliament today, would protect members of all faiths from incited hatred.

The Bill would create a new offence of Incitement to Religious Hatred, which would carry a maximum penalty of seven years in jail. The government says that this would close a gap in the existing law – the current law protects Jews and Sikhs from incited hatred under racial hatred legislation, as they are perceived as racial groups. However, members of other faiths, such as Muslims – who can come from a variety of different racial backgrounds – are not protected by the current legislation.

The announcement of the new legislation has been welcomed by groups such as The Commission for Racial Equality, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Hindu Forum and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. However, critics of the bill, including actor Rowan Atkinson, have expressed concerns that the Bill will affect free speech.

A previous attempt to introduce the legislation failed when the House of Lords blocked the Bill for the same reasons.

However, the government said that the proposals would not prevent artists or performers from offending, criticising or ridiculing faiths, but would apply in situations where threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour were used by someone who intended to stir up hatred about people of a certain religious faith.

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said: “People of all backgrounds and faiths have a right to live free from hatred, racism and extremism. Only be tackling such issues head on will we preserve the tolerance, fairness and inclusiveness, which are such vital parts of our society.

“It will not rule out criticism of religion or outlaw the telling of religious jokes. It is about protecting individuals from hatred and the fear of violence and harassment created by it.”

However, the Bill has been condemned by the National Secular Society (NSS) as “an invitation to religious extremists to use the courts to silence critics of their activities” and described as a “severe risk” to free expression in Britain.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said: “The UK law already protects everyone from incitement to violence and against harassment. The inevitable consequence of this proposed legislation would be to protect religious dogmas and beliefs from insult and mockery. The government is rushing ahead, ignoring all the opposition with legislation that will have the effect of restricting the expression of thought and opinion.”

Mr Porteous Wood also argued that a similar law, which was recently introduced in Victoria, Australia, had resulted in “much religious tension” and said that both Christians and Muslims were now attempting to have it repealed.


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