Opposition to UK bill on religious hatred deepens - news from ekklesia

By staff writers
October 12, 2005

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Opposition to UK bill on religious hatred deepens

-12/10/05

As the British government pushed ahead this week with controversial legislation to outlaw ëincitement to religious hatredí, a wide range of groups have continued to express alarm at a proposal they believe will seriously compromise free speech.

Yesterday several hundred Christians, mainly evangelicals and black church members, lobbied, protested and prayed outside parliament ñ timing their display of opposition to coincide with the second reading of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in the House of Lords.

Although representatives of Christian denominations and members of the Muslim Council of Britain have backed the bill, the coalition against includes grassroots Christian networks, some Muslims and other faith groups, humanists, lawyers, actors and comedians (such as Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson).

On Saturday the Evangelical Alliance UK headed up a 3,000 strong rally in central London opposing the proposed law.

National Campaign for the Arts director Victoria Todd has expressed concern that the bill will ìinfringe an artistís right to challenge, to stimulate and to provokeî. And the Writersí Guild of Great Britain has re-opened its anti-censorship committee.

Home secretary Charles Clarke has sought to reassure opponents by stressing that the new law targeted only extreme hate crimes aimed at people on account of their race or faith. Cases would be adjudicated by the attorney general, and anti-religious humour will be excluded, he said.

But the Rev Katei Kirby, CEO of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA) declared ì[The bill] affects everyone so deeply. This is not just about doctrine. This is not even about theological opposition. This is about our basic freedom to speak and to preach.î

National Secular Society vice-president Terry Sanderson commented: ìWe are coming at it from a completely different angle from the Christians. They are looking at the restrictions on their right to evangelise. We are looking at the restrictions on our being about to criticise religion per se.î

During yesterdayís House of Lords debate the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, also said that Racial and Religious Hatred Bill ìthreatens civil libertiesî.

ìI am troubled by the bill before us and feel that rather than strengthening the social fabric of our society it would weaken it. It has the potential to drive a wedge between the Muslim community and the rest of us,î he added.

Dr Carey was joined in opposing the measure by the Bishop of Winchester and by the former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay, who said it did not define religious belief.

Stephen Green of the much-criticised fundamentalist group Christian Voice added his own twist to the argument by saying that he would try to use the new law to prosecute bookshops selling the Qurían for inciting religious hatred.

Critics of Christianity and Judaism may also point out that their holy book includes references to divinely ordained genocide.

Meanwhile the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia says that the concern, confusion and misinformation surrounding the bill indicates that the government needs a rethink in its strategy.

ìWhile I believe the concerns behind this bill, such as the vilification of Muslims, are legitimate, the proposed mechanism for handling them is inappropriate,î said Ekklesiaís co-director, Simon Barrow.

Talking to UK Christian News TV, he claimed that public order legislation was a better way to tackle threat and harassment directed against people visibly identified as members of particular communities.

Mr Barrow also expressed concern that some Christian campaigners seemed to be putting self-interest before careful consideration of the issues.

ìIt is ironic that some people who are today enthusiastically waving placards calling for ëfree speechí were recently calling for censorship of Jerry Springer ñ The Opera,î he noted.

Ekklesia believes that Britainís blasphemy laws should be completely withdrawn, and that faith communities need to learn to take criticism and ridicule as part of a ìhealthy, robust public debate in which people of both religious and non-religious convictions need to be free to speak.î

Barrow added that Christians, particularly, need to recognise the diversity of opinion in their own communities. He said that churches engaged in public debate ìwill do more honour to their message if they resist simply trying to out-shout or compel those with whom they disagree.î

During the Jerry Springer row Ekklesia defended the controversial opera as having a serious purpose. It questioned church groups who objected to being offended by others, but then claimed the privilege of causing offence themselves.

Last night representatives of major denominations which have given qualified support to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill ñ including the Methodist Church, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Bishops in England and Wales ñ were talking about the need to build in clear safeguards in its use.

Find books now:

Opposition to UK bill on religious hatred deepens

-12/10/05

As the British government pushed ahead this week with controversial legislation to outlaw ëincitement to religious hatred', a wide range of groups have continued to express alarm at a proposal they believe will seriously compromise free speech.

Yesterday several hundred Christians, mainly evangelicals and black church members, lobbied, protested and prayed outside parliament - timing their display of opposition to coincide with the second reading of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in the House of Lords.

Although representatives of Christian denominations and members of the Muslim Council of Britain have backed the bill, the coalition against includes grassroots Christian networks, some Muslims and other faith groups, humanists, lawyers, actors and comedians (such as Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson).

On Saturday the Evangelical Alliance UK headed up a 3,000 strong rally in central London opposing the proposed law.

National Campaign for the Arts director Victoria Todd has expressed concern that the bill will 'infringe an artist's right to challenge, to stimulate and to provoke'. And the Writers' Guild of Great Britain has re-opened its anti-censorship committee.

Home secretary Charles Clarke has sought to reassure opponents by stressing that the new law targeted only extreme hate crimes aimed at people on account of their race or faith. Cases would be adjudicated by the attorney general, and anti-religious humour will be excluded, he said.

But the Rev Katei Kirby, CEO of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA) declared '[The bill] affects everyone so deeply. This is not just about doctrine. This is not even about theological opposition. This is about our basic freedom to speak and to preach.'

National Secular Society vice-president Terry Sanderson commented: 'We are coming at it from a completely different angle from the Christians. They are looking at the restrictions on their right to evangelise. We are looking at the restrictions on our being about to criticise religion per se.'

During yesterday's House of Lords debate the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, also said that Racial and Religious Hatred Bill 'threatens civil liberties'.

'I am troubled by the bill before us and feel that rather than strengthening the social fabric of our society it would weaken it. It has the potential to drive a wedge between the Muslim community and the rest of us,' he added.

Dr Carey was joined in opposing the measure by the Bishop of Winchester and by the former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay, who said it did not define religious belief.

Stephen Green of the much-criticised fundamentalist group Christian Voice added his own twist to the argument by saying that he would try to use the new law to prosecute bookshops selling the Qur'an for inciting religious hatred.

Critics of Christianity and Judaism may also point out that their holy book includes references to divinely ordained genocide.

Meanwhile the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia says that the concern, confusion and misinformation surrounding the bill indicates that the government needs a rethink in its strategy.

'While I believe the concerns behind this bill, such as the vilification of Muslims, are legitimate, the proposed mechanism for handling them is inappropriate,' said Ekklesia's co-director, Simon Barrow.

Talking to UK Christian News TV, he claimed that public order legislation was a better way to tackle threat and harassment directed against people visibly identified as members of particular communities.

Mr Barrow also expressed concern that some Christian campaigners seemed to be putting self-interest before careful consideration of the issues.

'It is ironic that some people who are today enthusiastically waving placards calling for ëfree speech' were recently calling for censorship of Jerry Springer - The Opera,' he noted.

Ekklesia believes that Britain's blasphemy laws should be completely withdrawn, and that faith communities need to learn to take criticism and ridicule as part of a 'healthy, robust public debate in which people of both religious and non-religious convictions need to be free to speak.'

Barrow added that Christians, particularly, need to recognise the diversity of opinion in their own communities. He said that churches engaged in public debate 'will do more honour to their message if they resist simply trying to out-shout or compel those with whom they disagree.'

During the Jerry Springer row Ekklesia defended the controversial opera as having a serious purpose. It questioned church groups who objected to being offended by others, but then claimed the privilege of causing offence themselves.

Last night representatives of major denominations which have given qualified support to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill - including the Methodist Church, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Bishops in England and Wales - were talking about the need to build in clear safeguards in its use.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.