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Religious Hatred Proposals
25 November 2004

On Wednesday 24 November Parliament conducted the first reading of the new Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. This is a major Bill addressing some much-publicised areas relating to law and order.

Buried deep in the Bill in Schedule 10 is a proposal to introduce the
concept of religious hatred. This has been of considerable concern to many groups since the Government first proposed it. There was a proposal to include such provision in the 2001 Terrorism Bill but this part was dropped when it became clear it would be divisive. The provision has now been introduced, again within a large Bill and there is a strong feeling that the Government has done this deliberately to get it passed as part of a larger package.

The proposals involve changing the 1986 Public Order Act so that
references to racial hatred are changed to racial and religious hatred.

Many of the concerns in 2001 focussed on the vagueness of proposals and that it appeared to focus on the offence statements may cause. The new proposals seem to focus more on the concept of stirring up hatred.

However, there is still much concern about whether such legislation is needed and what is the motivating factor.

It is clear that many Muslims in the feel threatened by actual or
potential backlash against Islamic terrorists. The 2001 Bill and parts of the new Bill may well be seen as discriminatory against Muslims. This is because there is clearly a threat from groups of terrorists who have a Muslim background. Therefore many feel that the Government is offering the proposals on religious hatred as a sop to the Muslim community.

By the same token there has been a growing sense among people at large, and amongst journalists and others making statements in the public domain, that there is now great reluctance and even fear to be seen to criticise or even publicise the actions and statements of what are seen as extremist Islamic groups. The fear is that this new law will be a major impediment to free speech. Furthermore, many religious groups fear that the legislation may end up being used to prevent people criticising the views of others. There are always going to be some people who will be stirred up by genuine and honest criticism no matter how soberly expressed.

It is expected that the second reading of the Bill will be on 7 December and then it will go to the Committee stage. The interplay of the Commons and Lords particularly in the run up to a General Synod is going to be a major factor in what will happen to the proposals.

David Phillips
25 Nov 2004


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