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Religious-Hate Legislation Gets Toned Down

British Government Is Handed an Unusual Defeat

LONDON, FEB. 5, 2006 (Zenit) - A proposed hate law affecting religion was substantially watered down in a rare parliamentary defeat for Britain's Labor government on Tuesday. In two votes in the Commons the government lost; the first time by 10 votes, the second time by just one vote, reported the Independent newspaper the following day.

The Commons voted to accept some significant amendments along the lines of changes asked for when the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was debated last October in the House of Lords. On that occasion the government's proposal was amended by an overwhelming majority of 149 votes.

The bill had proposed to make it an offense to stir up hatred against people on religious grounds; either spoken or written, in public or in private. Originally the law proposed by the government contemplated making insults and abuse an offense, as well as threatening words and behavior. The original proposal also made it an offense even if the person involved had not intended to stir up hatred.

The law as finally passed by Parliament stipulates that for a person to be charged it will have to be shown that "threatening" language or behavior was used, instead of the "threatening, insulting and abusive." It will also be necessary to prove that there was an intention to commit the offenses. The day Parliament voted on the law several hundred demonstrators gathered outside in protest against what they saw as an unjustified restriction on free speech.

The government had attempted to overcome opposition by accepting last-minute changes to the proposed law, the BBC reported Jan. 26. They accepted demands that incitement to religious hatred be covered by separate legislation rather than be joined to race-hate laws. And somebody could only be convicted if they intended or were reckless about inciting hatred. But the changes were not sufficient to placate critics.

Opposition to the law came from a wide variety of persons and groups. Comedians feared that it would no longer be possible for them to tell religious jokes. Civil rights activists were worried about restrictions on free speech. And a number of religious groups considered the law overly restrictive.

An editorial Tuesday in the Guardian newspaper noted this was the third attempt by the government since 2001 to pass a law on this subject. Its previous attempts had failed due to opposition in the House of Lords.

According to the editorial, the government's proposal "conflated threatening behavior and material, from which religious people deserve protection, with insult and abuse of religious belief, which is a necessary part of an open society."

Another problem was that it failed to "distinguish properly between the believer, who should not suffer for what he or she is, and the belief, which others must be entitled to attack, question and ridicule, even to the extent of causing offense to believers."

Defending free speech

The Christian Institute, an evangelical group, welcomed the changes made to the law. In a briefing last August it explained its opposition to the proposed law. The institute said the legislation would harm free speech and place governmental and judicial authorities in the position of judging people's religious beliefs.

As well, the institute noted that protection already exists for all people regardless of religion. Under British law it is already a criminal offense to incite a crime against another person, whether or not religion is the cause. And in 2001 Parliament passed laws establishing religiously-aggravated offenses. Another problem is that some religious groups are litigious, and they could hold the threat of prosecution over the heads of their detractors, the institute warned.

On Tuesday a group of humanists, secularists, Muslims and evangelical Christians wrote a letter published in the Telegraph newspaper, asking parliamentarians to vote against the law.

Among the signatories to the letter were two Muslims, Ghyasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, and Manzoor Moghal, of the Muslim Forum. Their views contrasted with the stance of the Muslim Council of Britain. That council, generally seen as the country's most representative Islamic body, supported the legislation, according to the Telegraph.

Other signatories to the letter included Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, and representatives of the British Humanist Association, the Christian Institute and the Evangelical Alliance.

"As people with strong views on religion, we know how easy it is to offend those with whom you disagree and how easy it is to resent what others say, and see insult in it," the letter stated. "But we also recognize that a free society must have the scope to debate, criticize, proselytize, insult and even to ridicule belief and religious practices in order to ensure that there is full scope -- short of violence or inciting violence or other criminal offenses -- to tackle these issues."

When the bill was debated last October in the House of Lords, numerous press articles pointed out problems with the legislation. On Oct. 12 the Guardian reported that one Protestant evangelical group, Christian Voice, warned that it would consider using the new law to prosecute bookshops selling the Koran for inciting religious hatred.

Australia's experience

On Oct. 23 the Sunday Times reported that witches and Satanists could use it to trigger police investigations of their critics. This was no empty warning, the article reported, citing a case in Australia.

In fact, the Australian experiment with religious hate laws has been widely cited by opponents. In December 2003 the first case was heard in the state of Victoria under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.

The Islamic Council of Victoria filed a complaint about statements made by evangelical pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot during a March 2002 seminar. In December 2003, Judge Michael Higgins found the two had made fun of Muslim beliefs.

Last June 22, the judge ordered the pastors to print public apologies in newspapers and on their Web site, the Herald-Sun reported the next day. The judge observed that the two pastors had passionate religious beliefs which he thought caused them to break the law. "That does not excuse their conduct," he said, "but does go some way to explain why they acted as they did."

In a commentary published July 4 in the Sydney Morning Herald, Emily Maguire noted that the group the pastors belong to, Catch the Fire, is undeniably hostile to Islam, and that the declarations made by them were deeply offensive to many Muslims.

Nevertheless, she argued that the freedom to criticize religion is important. Moreover, "silencing such speech creates martyrs, while giving the views a thorough airing allows response," Maguire wrote. The pastors later appealed the decision.

Following the judge's decision, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney also came out against the idea of religious-hate laws, in an article published July 3 in the Sunday Telegraph.

The archbishop welcomed the decision of the New South Wales state government not to support a proposal to introduce a law against religious vilification. "Such a law would undermine the freedom it seeks to protect, would be counterproductive and end up curtailing free speech as well as deepening the rifts between different religious groups," wrote Cardinal Pell.

The following month a senior Victorian judge called for changes to the state's law on religious vilification, the Herald-Sun reported Aug. 2. Judge Stuart Morris' comments came as he dismissed a lawsuit launched by a convicted sex offender and self-proclaimed witch. Robin Fletcher had claimed the Salvation Army's Alpha Christianity course, offered in jails, discriminated against him on the ground of his Wiccan religion. The volatile mix of free speech and religion might be bubbling for quite some time.

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