Line in the sand

There have been a lot of stupid things said about the religious hatred legislation but these comments today takes the top spot:

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said: “It is about protecting the believer, not the belief.”

Mr Goggins said he did not expect many prosecutions under the new laws, but said it was important for Parliament to send out a clear message.

He said: “This will be a line in the sand which indicates to people a line beyond which they cannot go…

“People of all backgrounds and faiths have a right to live free from hatred, racism and extremism.”

Mr Goggins said police had told him they believed the new law could have prevented some of the riots in northern English towns in 2001.

A line in the sand beyond which we cannot go? Please expand on that Mr. Goggins.

And really is there any evidence at all to suggest the riots in Burnley or the trouble in Oldham or Bradford had anything at all to do with criticism of religion?

What a dreadful effort to justify a woeful piece of legislation.

David T adds

Having quickly scanned the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, I’ve three observations:

1. What is “religious hatred”?

“Religious hatred” is defined, counterintuitively, as “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief.”

“Group of persons” is an odd term. Does it require that there be an identifiable “community”, or simply more than one person?”.

Might the “group of persons” include atheists? Possibly, I think. If the hatred was directed against, say, gays – or a more amorphous group such as “fiction writers or playwrights who say rude things about a religion” – who also happened not to believe that their activities were prohibited by a particular religious doctrine, would that count? I don’t think so: its not the particular mischief the Bill is aimed at. And, in any case, you might say – in defending a hatemonger – that the hatred was aimed at gays or writers who said rude things about a religion whether they accepted the wrongness of their acts or not. I don’t think that leave to prosecute such a case would ever be given by the Attorney General.

Would it catch hatred directed to all athiests? Possibly, but who stirs up hatred at all athiests? Militant athiests might well be said to “stir up hatred” against all religious belief: they would, after all, have directed their spleen at a group of persons defined by their belief in God, the fundamental religious belief.

But would it catch generalised tirades against all unbelievers. I reckon its arguable.

And would it catch hatred directed at apostates? Certainly.

2. Insult

I was sure that I’d heard or read a news item that the Bill would also outlaw insults. Well, it will do that if the insults also stir up hatred, but not because they’re insults. In any case, a s. 5 Public Order Act “threatening or abusive words or behaviour” offence would be committed if somebody spits out religiously abusive epithets at his cowering victim.

But the Bill should not, if properly implemented, catch a serious novel such as The Satanic Verses”, a book whose politically motivated and deliberate misreading was the spark which lit hundreds of demonstrations.

3. Human Rights Act 1998

The Bill when passed will be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. It must be interpreted by the courts, and ministers – including the Attorney General – are bound to implement it it to achieve conformity with the Convention.

If the Bill is used against serious criticisms of religion, by other faith or athiest perspectives – that prosecution will be challenged. The defendants will rely upon Article 10 – which protects Freedom of Expression – and Article 9 – Freedom of Thought Conscience and Religion – and will argue that the restrictions on their belief and the expression of that belief imposed by the Bill are not proportional, and therefore are not permitted by Articles 9(2) and 10(2). It will also be pointed out that the law allows religious people to slander non-religious people, but punishes non-religious people if they respond in kind.

In short, if properly applied – and Charles Clarke has certified that the Bill conforms with the Convention – it will catch only egregious attacks on religious people.

Nevertheless, the Bill should be opposed. Moreover, it is unjust and ineffective, and will do nothing to protect religious sensibilities – which is at least 50% of the gripe of those demanding legal protection – and it gives the Attorney General and the Courts too much discretion. We shouldn’t forget that black separatists were among the first to be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred when that law was brought into force. Religious tensions will be heightened by a attempt to enforce the law against zealots who incite against apostates. But if this Bill becomes law, it must also “protect” apostates if it is to be applied even-handedly.

It also offends against freedom of expression, symbolically privileges religious beliefs over non-religious beliefs and in fact leaves athiest critics of religion exposed. If, as I hope, the Attorney General will be reluctant to prosecute, it will be a damp squib, and will simply disappoint those whose hopes have been foolishly raised by the Bill. If it is used against the BNP – and I suspect it will be – well, more fool the Government. The BNP will make enormous capital out of it, they’ll paint themselves as martyrs, or alternatively, they’re play it safe, and reproduce the bulk of the text of the leaflet, minus the inflammatory sloganeering, and there will be nothing that can properly be done about it. If the Government prosecutes, they’ll risk losing. In fact, the Attorney General has considered but declined to prosecute leaflets published by racists with racist intent which do no more than “state the facts”.

As I’ve argued, it may be that the offence will not, or can not, be used lawfully to prevent a serious criticism of religion. But it will have a chilling effect on such criticism. Debates on Harry’s Place will also be filled with mock outrage at what some commentators will claim is the flouting of the law, whenever we discuss Qaradawi. Some of you will think that a good thing. It isn’t.

Finally, a good point from “Jezbod” on the BBC news site:

Clearly if you want to eradicate something from society, then making it illegal is a sure fire winning way of doing that. After all, our prisons are empty, all drivers obey speed limits, nobody gets murdered, drugs are a thing of the past and who has heard of anybody being burgled? I find it extraordinary (regularly) that our country is seemingly run by imbeciles (assuming I’m not breaking any laws by expressing this point of view). How about a “per time” charge – maybe frequent racists could pay £1.34 per incident (reducing to 2p if nobody hears them).