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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Religious Hatred Bill: Lords Assert Their Will Over The Commons To Protect Freedom Of Speech

Religious Hatred Bill: Lords Assert Their Will Over The Commons To Protect Freedom Of Speech

The National Secular Society commends the House of Lords for defeating the Government so roundly by supporting the free speech amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. They were proposed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. Other co-signatories include QC Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Lib Dem) and Lord Hunt of the Wirral (Conservative).
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “I hope that the Government will learn from its defeat over these amendments that it will be almost impossible to get this Bill through Parliament in its unamended form. It has already failed three times to bring these measures to the statute book through its obdurate refusal to respond to concerns about freedom of speech. The Government has seemed oblivious to the huge breadth of opposition to the Bill in Parliament, by human rights campaigners and those in the literary world. Secularists, church leaders and evangelical groups have formed an unprecedented front to oppose the Bill.”
Mr Porteous Wood added: “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 amendment which was accepted this afternoon increases the threshold materially by requiring intent to be proved and that speech was threatening. It contains essential freedom of speech safeguards absent in the original bill.
“Without these amendments, the Bill will 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 will be counterproductive and will benefit extremists. Rather than differences being resolved by healthy open debate, discussion on sensitive religious matters will be driven underground where they will fester. Community tensions will be heightened 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 There have been calls for similar legislation in Australia to be repealed because it has brought the previously peaceful relationship between evangelical Christians and Muslim communities to crisis point in litigation going on for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. [1]
[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200506/s1397914.htm

Published Tue, 25 Oct 2005