Catholics and C of E concerned about Public Order Act amendment

By staff writers
December 3, 2007

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference of England have issued a guarded memorandum of response to the committee commenting on a proposed government amendment to the Public Order Act 1986 regarding a new offence of incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation.

The two churches affirm the importance of protecting people vulnerable to attack on grounds of their sexuality or gender identity. But they say that "words, behaviour and display of written material which are intended to cause harassment, alarm or distress, or which occur in the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, are already prohibited by [sections] 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. We wonder whether these provisions are being enforced effectively and equitably in order to combat hate crimes."

The same point was made in relation to the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which was opposed by civil rights grups and by a number of religious and secular organisations concerned about free speech, but given support by many formal churches.

The memorandum acknolwedges that that debate: "illustrated the need to balance protection of vulnerable groups with safeguards for freedom of expression".

"Our main concern," the churches point out, controversially, "is that any legislation on incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation permits the expression of traditional Christian (and other) opinions on sexual behaviour and consequent criticisms of particular forms of behaviour or lifestyle."

They continue: "As with incitement to religious hatred, we believe it is vital that there should be the maximum possible clarity about what is forbidden and what is permitted. Christians engaged in teaching or preaching and those seeking to act in accord with Christian convictions in their daily lives need to be assured that the expression of strong opinions on marriage or sexuality will not be illegal."

Critics will argue that this is coded language defending the expression of hateful prejudice against sexual minorities legitimated by religious teaching.

Nevertheless, civil liberties campaigners share the concern that free speech should not be compromised, and outspoken campaigners like Peter Tatchell - who has attacked the attitituds of many in the churches and other faiths - have argued that the government's proposal is dangerous in these terms.

In conclusion, the two churches request an exploration of safeguards bearing in mind the differences between religion and sexual orientation to "protect expressions of opinion directed against conduct rather than against the person themselves."

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