Think tank calls for big rethink on religious hatred and blasphemy - news from ekklesia

By staff writers
October 25, 2005

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Think tank calls for big rethink on religious hatred and blasphemy

-25/10/05

While describing the governmentís Racial and Religious Hatred Bill as ìdeeply flawedî and welcoming an all-party amendment passed by 260 votes to 111 in the House of Lords today, the UK Christian think tank has raised questions about the tenor of opposition to the proposed legislation ñ and has called for a commission to explore the wider issues of hate speech and freedom of expression.

Ekklesia, named among Britainís top think tanks by several leading newspapers, is also recommending the complete removal of the blasphemy law, which gives unique protection to the Church of England, from the statute.

In a response to the controversial bill, which would make incitement to hatred on the grounds of religion a crime, Ekklesia says that existing public order legislation can and should be used to outlaw harassment against Muslims and other minority groups. It also suggests a reconsideration of civil offences.

In its new document ëRethinking hate speech, blasphemy and free expressioní, the think tank details five ìmajor difficultiesî with what is being put forward ñ issues of definition, legal consistency, scope, accountability and application.

It also criticises the governmentís stated intention to use the Parliament Act to push through a law which has attracted huge opposition from faith and secular bodies, as well as many sections of the legal profession.

Citing the Jerry Springer ñ The Opera furore, Ekklesia also expresses concern that some Christian groups are claiming a free speech defence while wishing to censor or traduce others. And it deplores ìscare tacticsî which imply that the bill would outlaw preaching.

On the latter issue, the think tank declares: ìA Gospel of love should have nothing to with hate speech in the first place. And insofar as Christians are guilty of verbal abuse against others they are condemned by their own message, regardless of the law.î

It says: ìEkklesiaís starting point for considering hate speech, blasphemy and freedom of expression is that members of faith communities should enjoy the same protections and rights as others in civil society ñ no less, but no more.î

The report also claims that the distinction in public debate between religious and ethnic or national identities is ìsimplistic and unhelpfulî, pointing out that for many people their religious identity is fundamental, and has to be dealt with as a political and social fact, even if it cannot result in full legal equivalence.

ìThe problem we face is not just the evident problems with the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, but with the whole nature of the public argument about hate speech and religionî, says Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

He adds: ìThere is no doubt that Muslims and minority groups face menace and harassment at the moment. When that happens they need protection. This is what public order and civil provisions are there to provide, and what social solidarity should offer. The churches can take a lead in this.î

But Ekklesia agrees with critics of the bill that legislation which could be used to outlaw criticism and ridicule of religion is not the answer. It says that ìthe best response to puerile, insulting, cruel or victimising talk is not censorshipÖ it is the responsive language of truthfulness, honesty and compassion.î

The think tankís response to the bill also says that the important issue of freedom of expression should not be reduced to ìadolescent delight in causing offenceî. It declares: ìSpeech really worth having is much more than ëfreeí ñ it is costly, demanding, challenging and life-giving.î

Ekklesia ìopposes a law of blasphemy not on pragmatic grounds alone, but centrally on theological ones. Christian faith (and indeed any faith) is corrupted when its allegiance or defence is legally required by the state. Instead of being a liberating tradition rooted in Godís favour-free love, it becomes a matter of coercion and oppression.î

Drawing attention to recent abuses of blasphemy in other parts of the world, the think tank concludes: ìIt is not without significance that Jesus himself was tried and executed by a coalition of political and religious forces who objected to his subversive message.î

[Also on Ekklesia: God and the politicians ñ where next?]

Find books now:

Think tank calls for big rethink on religious hatred and blasphemy

-25/10/05

While describing the government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill as 'deeply flawed' and welcoming an all-party amendment passed by 260 votes to 111 in the House of Lords today, the UK Christian think tank has raised questions about the tenor of opposition to the proposed legislation - and has called for a commission to explore the wider issues of hate speech and freedom of expression.

Ekklesia, named among Britain's top think tanks by several leading newspapers, is also recommending the complete removal of the blasphemy law, which gives unique protection to the Church of England, from the statute.

In a response to the controversial bill, which would make incitement to hatred on the grounds of religion a crime, Ekklesia says that existing public order legislation can and should be used to outlaw harassment against Muslims and other minority groups. It also suggests a reconsideration of civil offences.

In its new document ëRethinking hate speech, blasphemy and free expression', the think tank details five 'major difficulties' with what is being put forward - issues of definition, legal consistency, scope, accountability and application.

It also criticises the government's stated intention to use the Parliament Act to push through a law which has attracted huge opposition from faith and secular bodies, as well as many sections of the legal profession.

Citing the Jerry Springer - The Opera furore, Ekklesia also expresses concern that some Christian groups are claiming a free speech defence while wishing to censor or traduce others. And it deplores 'scare tactics' which imply that the bill would outlaw preaching.

On the latter issue, the think tank declares: 'A Gospel of love should have nothing to with hate speech in the first place. And insofar as Christians are guilty of verbal abuse against others they are condemned by their own message, regardless of the law.'

It says: 'Ekklesia's starting point for considering hate speech, blasphemy and freedom of expression is that members of faith communities should enjoy the same protections and rights as others in civil society - no less, but no more.'

The report also claims that the distinction in public debate between religious and ethnic or national identities is 'simplistic and unhelpful', pointing out that for many people their religious identity is fundamental, and has to be dealt with as a political and social fact, even if it cannot result in full legal equivalence.

'The problem we face is not just the evident problems with the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, but with the whole nature of the public argument about hate speech and religion', says Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

He adds: 'There is no doubt that Muslims and minority groups face menace and harassment at the moment. When that happens they need protection. This is what public order and civil provisions are there to provide, and what social solidarity should offer. The churches can take a lead in this.'

But Ekklesia agrees with critics of the bill that legislation which could be used to outlaw criticism and ridicule of religion is not the answer. It says that 'the best response to puerile, insulting, cruel or victimising talk is not censorshipÖ it is the responsive language of truthfulness, honesty and compassion.'

The think tank's response to the bill also says that the important issue of freedom of expression should not be reduced to 'adolescent delight in causing offence'. It declares: 'Speech really worth having is much more than ëfree' - it is costly, demanding, challenging and life-giving.'

Ekklesia 'opposes a law of blasphemy not on pragmatic grounds alone, but centrally on theological ones. Christian faith (and indeed any faith) is corrupted when its allegiance or defence is legally required by the state. Instead of being a liberating tradition rooted in God's favour-free love, it becomes a matter of coercion and oppression.'

Drawing attention to recent abuses of blasphemy in other parts of the world, the think tank concludes: 'It is not without significance that Jesus himself was tried and executed by a coalition of political and religious forces who objected to his subversive message.'

[Also on Ekklesia: God and the politicians - where next?]

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.