Black churches oppose religious hatred bill
Leaders of over 100 black majority churches in London say they will bring 5,000 people to Westminster on Monday next week to protest against the UK Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which passed its third reading in the House of Common last night - despite vocal opposition from secular and religious groups.
The argument over the legislation will now focus on the House of Lords, where it faces further scrutiny before becoming law. The government made one concession yesterday, allowing an amendment that prevents the ëmalicious' application of the legislation through citizen's arrests.
Ms Katie Kirby, general manager of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA), said that black churches had no objections in principle to anything which protected people's right to choose and express their own faith. But she was worried that legitimate attempts to evangelise across communities would be deemed unacceptable in the light of the bill.
Similarly, non-religious organisations fear that criticising religious views will become much more difficult. Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association, said today that although there was a need to protect people from hatred, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was a 'clear threat to free speech'.
Ms Stinson added: 'Our consistent position on this issue for the last four years has been that there is a gap in the law, there are people in society currently in need of protection who are not getting it, and a law that properly addressed the issue of incitement of hatred of people on the grounds of their beliefs without restricting the right to criticise religious beliefs and practices would be welcomed.'
Government spokespersons, including Catholic MP and Home Office minister Paul Goggins, a one-time director of Church Action on Poverty, claim that the new law will be no threat to freedom of speech.
They say it is aimed only at outlawing incitement to hatred against members of religious communities (like Christians, Hindus and Muslims) not covered by existing race hatred legislation (which includes Jews and Sikhs).
Those who support changing the law include the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), many Christian denominations, and in a strongly qualified way the legal and human rights campaign Justice.
Those opposed include the National Secular Society, the Evangelical Alliance, the British Humanist Association, black churches, the civil rights campaign Liberty, and media personalities such as Rowan Atkinson.
Earlier attempts by a Liberal Democrat peer to seek an amendment to existing race hate legislation as an alternative to the new religious hatred bill were rejected by the government.
'I agree that it is important that we put in place safeguards to ensure that no over-zealous interpretation of the new offence, or of specific circumstances in which it may occur, inadvertently adds unnecessarily to tensions that may exist,' said Paul Goggins last night, seeking to allay fears.
Any prosecutions under the new law, expected to be few and far between, will need to be approved by the Attorney General.
But critics of the bill say that it is poorly drafted, unclear and unworkable. One difficulty is that ëhatred' is not defined, and is in any case not a criminal offence. Many lawyers argue that criminalising incitement to something that is not an offence itself is incoherent.
The government says the law will 'send out a signal' against religious hatred, but it has also struggled to come up with concrete examples of incidents of intimidation against religious groups which could not be dealt with under existing public order offences.
An example would be the hate messages and threats sent to mosques following the London bomb attacks last week. These incidents, together with several involving violence and alleged arson are being investigated by the police. However, it is widely acknowledged that much more needs to be done to protect the Muslim community.
Meanwhile London's black churches, part of a wider black majority church community of 4,000 groups throughout the UK, say that they will not be silenced by the new law.