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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Incitement to Religious Hatred - Government's Promise to Listen is Hollow

16th May 2005

The Government’s renewed determination to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred" was condemned today by the National Secular Society.

NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood said: "The Prime Minister promised during the election that he would listen to his critics in this new term, but his threat to use the Parliament Act to force this unpopular measure through gives an entirely different message. It smacks of authoritarianism and arrogance."

The NSS has been at the forefront of the battle to derail these proposals, and they have been rejected by parliament on three separate occasions. Keith Porteous Wood commented: "These proposals have failed to reach the statute book despite three attempts in the last four years. This is because the scale of opposition has been of almost unprecedented breadth. It has been across all parties, in Parliament and in the press. Opposition has come from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat frontbenches as well as Labour backbenches.

"The House of Lords Religious Offences Committee deliberated for over a year and decided not to recommend what the Government is now proposing. Human rights and justice organisations have also strongly opposed the government's legislative proposals. The major evangelical Christian groups are equally opposed, as are other religious groups, including some Muslim ones. How much stronger could the opposition be, and is it not arrogant of the government to assume there are all wrong?

"The principal problem which the legislation seeks to address is white separatist groups inciting hatred on racial grounds, but using religion as a proxy. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats tabled a joint amendment to clarify that the race hatred legislation could be used in such instances, but the government opposed the sensible solution, which carried minimal freedom of expression dangers.

"The thresholds of proof proposed by the government are dangerously low. It is not necessary to prove intent, merely that material could have been seen by any person -- not even any reasonable person -- in whom it is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.

"There have been widespread serious allegations that the Government has been motivated in pushing through this legislation simply to appease minority religious interests. Freedom of speech is our main protection against attacks on our democracy and justice. Freedom of speech is already being eroded by the month in the face of unprecedented attacks from religious groups, and it will be dealt a further major blow if these proposals reach the statute book.

"We call on the Government to accept the opposition amendments."

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 17 May 2005 )

Published Mon, 16 May 2005