This week, the British government survived a revolt from its own backbenchers over its plans to introduce a law banning what it calls the incitement to religious hatred. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which was passed with a majority of just 57 votes, is strongly opposed by church groups, as well as representatives of other religious communities.
These groups fear that it will severely limit freedom of speech within religious communities and society at large.
Other critics of the bill have included comic actor Rowan Atkinson. Comedians feel that the law will limit freedom of expression and stop them from telling religious jokes.
British Home Secretary Charles Clarke responded with this: ‘[This bill] won't stop people from proselytizing and it will not curb artistic freedom - neither the purpose nor the effect of this bill is to limit freedom of expression.’
According to the Opposition’s spokesman on such matters, the the bill is ‘too general, too wide, too vague, too dangerous’.
The bill had already failed to get through Parliament’s House of Commons on two previous occasions, simply because many MPs, including Labour MPs, could not see any real benefits attached to it. Even friends of the bill have said that they expect to see very few cases come before the courts.
So, why pursue the bill at all? Why does Britian need it?
The answer is simple: Britain doesn’t need laws specifically outlawing ‘religious intolerance’, nor does any other European nation. There are several major reasons for this.
First of all, laws may change behaviour but they cannot change the human heart, and to expect them to do so is to invite disaster. In the end, you cannot legislate tolerance – legislation can can only protect people from harmful behaviour based upon intolerance.
The law can and must step in to protect people when opinion or belief leads to something more – violent persecution, for example. Or villification which in some way endangers people, or makes it hard for them to attend to their legitimate business.
Laws on their own, though, will never eradicate the bitter attitudes which lead a small minority of individuals – most of whom operate outside mainstream religious communities – to violence.
Secondly, while limiting debate may not be the intention of the present government, the danger is in the law’s potential for abuse in future. What one generation of politicians will tolerate, or barely accept, the next generation will treat as the norm – thereby opening the door for new laws with even more inbuilt control.
Once we give up a section of our right to free speech, we almost never have the opportunity to regain it. What’s to stop law-makers in ten or twenty years from now using the present bill as a precedent for even more draconian measures?
Laws like these will probably do little to protect the minorities they seek to help, while – and this is the truly dangerous part – placing a greater potential for control in the hands of an already over-regulating government system.
Thirdly, there are real differences of belief between various religions. There’s no point in denying it.
For example, one can’t properly call oneself a follower of Christ, a Christian, without accepting his teaching, which includes the claim that he was ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’, that there is no way to reach God the Father except through him (John 14:6, the Bible).
That claim marks out people of one faith – in this case, the Christian faith – from people of another. Yet the same Christ taught us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
We can share our version of reality with our neighbour without disrespecting or mistreating him. In fact, according to Jesus, it is the fact that we are motivated by love and not hate which causes us to share our faith in the first place.
Religious beliefs do separate people at some level. But so do political beliefs and beliefs about football teams – both of which are often defended with something like ‘religious fervour’. To try to limit discussion in either of these areas would be anathema to any sensible politician. So, why single out religion?
A UK barrister, writing in The Times a couple of months back, said: ‘The danger with creating these special types of religious offence is that they stimulate feelings of divisiveness, create ‘thought crimes’ and lead to show trials where judges, or juries, have to make decisions in areas where historians and philosophers have been unable to agree for centuries.’
Under this bill, churches and other religious meeting places may become places of fear.
Speakers and leaders may fear to share the unique tenets of their faith, knowing that they may say something which is deemed offensive by a person of another persuasion and opens them to prosecution.
This bill threatens the very basis of healthy debate: the freedom to state a belief, to put a case. This freedom should not be denied in any sphere of life – including that of religion.
On the release of the original bill, the Islamic Human Rights Commission issued a press statement. It says: ‘Rather than enjoying additional protection from the law, religious minorities could find themselves the targets of prosecutions under the proposed legislation’(Press Release, 7 July 2004).
Under this law, fringe groups from one religion would be able to attack the efforts of other faith communities, destroying in the process all the hard work they’re doing for the community.
Consider too: laws like this use a very large sledge hammer to crack a very small nut. Yes, there are extremes of view in some religious communities – just as there are in any section of society.
Penalties against violent action are already covered by existing laws which deal with incitement to violence and racial intolerance. Why do we need to add a component dealing specifically with religion?
To single out religious belief as this bill is doing is an act of discrimination and injustice. Why not single out other forms of belief in which there is the potential for heated debate – political beliefs, for example? They are often defended with as much passion as religious beliefs.
Finally, contrary to the claims of some, this law will do absolutely nothing to reduce the threat of terrorism. People who use terror as a tool for change operate as much or more from political motives as religious ones. (So, again, why not stamp out political debate? Or is that the next cab off the rank?)
If governments are not held to account right now, they will use the threat of terrorist activity to pass all kinds of legislation which have little to do with community harmony and more to do with government control.