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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Religious Hatred Bill

11 October 2005

Religious Hatred Bill Faces Huge Opposition For
Unnecessary Infringement Of Freedom Of Speech

The Government is introducing the Incitement to Religious Hatred to the House of Lords today in a second reading of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. This is the Government’s fourth attempt to do so; the first time was shortly post 11 September 2001. The latest proposals are essentially the same as those which suffered the three previous defeats. The Government has rejected all amendments, even one proposed jointly by the Conservatives and LibDems. The opposition the Government faces this time is even stronger than previously. It includes almost all Conservatives and LibDems and a growing number of Labour rebels.
The National Secular Society has led opposition to the Bill and has even drawn together religious and secular groups to oppose the Bill in a way they have never co-operated before. They will both be demonstrating against the Bill together today. The demonstration outside Parliament is expected to be very large indeed.
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “The Government should learn from its three failures to bring these measures to the statute book and withdraw this unnecessary and dangerous Bill altogether.”
He added: “The Bill is likely to further limit freedom of expression, both directly and through self-censorship. Journalists and commentators confirm freedom of expression is already being eroded, especially over discussion of matters involving minority religions.
“The Bill is Draconian. The maximum penalty is seven years in prison, yet prosecution thresholds are very low indeed. The chilling effect on freedom of speech, even if there are no prosecutions, will be huge.
“The Bill is also counterproductive and will benefit extremists. Rather than differences being resolved by healthy open debate, the Bill will curtail discussion on sensitive religious matters, so differences will simply be pushed underground to fester. The Bill will also heighten community tensions by polarising religious communities against each other in legal disputes. There have been calls for similar legislation in Australia to be repealed because it has brought the previously peaceful relationship between evangelical Christians and Muslim communities to crisis point in litigation going on for years.
“Above all, these measures are unnecessary. The Government has failed to identify any activity which would be illegal under this Bill which is not already illegal.”

Published Tue, 25 Oct 2005