Freedom of Expression Under Threat from Government Attempt to Re-introduce Incitement to Religeous Hatred Legistration

Thursday, 9th Jun 2005

The fourth attempt, being made today, to introduce into Parliament a law banning “incitement to religious hatred” was condemned today as “an invitation to religious extremists to use the courts to silence critics of their activities”.

The National Secular Society says that the Government’s proposals will pose a severe risk to free expression in Britain. Those who denounce religion or a particular religion as untrue and dangerous will be at risk of being jailed.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said: “This House of Lords Religious Offences Committee pondered over the reintroduction of this legislation for over a year, but it decided against recommending it. The committee examined the matter from all angles but could not see a way round the many problems such a law would create, the most worrying of which relate to restriction of freedom of expression.

“The UK law already protects everyone from incitement to violence and against harassment. The inevitable consequence of this proposed legislation would be to protect religious dogmas and beliefs from insult and mockery. The Government is rushing ahead, ignoring all the opposition with legislation that will have the effect of restricting the expression of thought and opinion. The maximum penalty will be seven years in jail and will be used by religious extremists to silence the more moderate and political commentators.

Mr Porteous Wood said that “while race is immutable and a genetic characteristic that couldn’t be changed, religion was an ideology that could be embraced or rejected at will. With religion come ideologies with proscription and prescriptions, and sometimes political ambitions. We must be able to vigorously call religion to account. “Does the Government really want to give extremists more power to control our reactions to their activities?” he asked.

“A similar law that was introduced recently in Victoria, Australia, has resulted in much religious tension and both Christians and Muslims — who were enthusiastic about the law when it was introduced — are now begging the Australian government to repeal it after a court case found evangelical Christians guilty of insulting Islam. A similar law in Italy has seen well known author Oriano Fellaci charged with insulting Islam.