By Mark Mullins (Barrister)
(First Published in Christian Voice January 2005)
When the Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, when he was Home Secretary, said that a law against incitement to religious hatred was needed to protect society against "far-right evangelical Christians" as well as "extremists in the Islamic faith", his words should have sent alarm bells ringing throughout the Christian community.
It is impossible to know what is meant by a far-right evangelical. However, let me show you how this new law could catch any Bible believing Christian who believes in evangelism. There is an existing offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 of displaying a sign containing abusive, threatening or insulting words within the sight of a person for whom it was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. The new law also criminalises the use of abusive, threatening or insulting words.
Harry Hammond was a 67 year-old street preacher who suffered from Asperger's syndrome. On 13th October 2001 he stood in the Square in Bournemouth holding a placard displaying the words: Stop immorality, Stop homosexuality, Stop lesbianism. This sign stirred up the crowd resulting in Mr Hammond being attacked and pushed to the ground with mud and water being poured over him. Mr Hammond was arrested and later convicted for displaying the sign. Very sadly Mr Hammond died shortly afterwards. Following his conviction his case was appealed by the trustees of his estate to the High Court. The Court held that the magistrates were entitled to find the sign to be insulting because it appeared to relate homosexuality and lesbianism to immorality.
Leaving aside the absurd anomaly that Mr Hammond found himself prosecuted despite being the victim of a most unpleasant assault by a group of angry and aggressive people younger and stronger than he, this conviction shows that the court will not take into account the truth of the comments. The fact that the words were not expressed in intemperate language was also irrelevant according to the court. The uncomfortable conclusion to this case is that anyone expressing Biblical truth that exposes other people's behaviour as immoral could lead to prosecution under the first limb of the new offence.
intend to stir up religious hatred or (irrespective of his intention) the comments are likely to be heard or seen by a person in whom religious hatred is likely to be stirred up in all the circumstances. This produces two problems. First religion is not defined. There is therefore a real prospect that Satanism will be protected. Indeed Fiona McTaggart, the Home Office Minister responsible for steering this law through the Commons, indicated as much on Radio 4 in the Law in Action Programme on 26th November 2004. You may recall that the Captain on HMS Cumberland officially allowed a member of his ship's company to read his satanic scriptures on board ship. I trust the Lord will have mercy on that ship.
The second problem is that hatred is not defined. Although Fiona McTaggart suggests that it was directed at hatred designed to stir up violence, this is not stated within the text of the clause. There is however a similarly worded civil offence in Australia under Section 8 of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 which states:
A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.
Pastor Daniel Scot is a Pakistani Christian who was forced to flee Pakistan and seek refuge in Australia in 1986 after being prosecuted under Pakistan's blasphemy laws where he was charged with insulting the Prophet Mohammed. He also faced violent threats from Muslim extremists. In 2002 Daniel Scot conducted a seminar aimed only at Christians to raise human rights concerns about Islam.
At the suggestion of the Islamic Council of Victoria, three Muslims attended the seminar with a view to bringing a complaint under the anti-vilification law. On 17th December Judge Higgins found that the law had been breached. The judge listed a number of controversial statements (including the allegation that Mohammed was a paedophile a view mentioned by Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph on 11th December) which he did not find to be false statements about Islam. What he did not mention was that the purpose of the seminar was to learn how about Islam to understand what Muslims believe so that that the Gospel can be shared more effectively with them.
Probably the most incriminating finding against Pastor Scot was that he had described Muslims as demons. However a close examination of the transcript of the seminar, from which the judge made his findings, reveals that Pastor Scot, summarising the Qur'an at Sura 46, verses 28-31 actually said: a group of demons became Muslim. It is a matter of grave concern that a judge made this kind of mistake and underlines the problem of interpreting correctly such a long and involved seminar.
The Government is insisting that the threshold of religious hatred is much higher than that contained in the Australian law. However, it is difficult to see that there is any real difference. The test in the Bill is whether the comments are likely to be heard or seen by a person in whom religious hatred is likely to be stirred up in all the circumstances. The test used by the judge in the Australian case was whether the ordinary reasonable reader who is not malevolently inclined or free from susceptibility to prejudice would be inclined to hatred, ridicule, contempt or revulsion by reason of the presentation of the seminar. While it might be argued that inclining a person to ridicule, contempt or revulsion may perhaps require a lower threshold than inclining them to hatred, the fact is that the judge did not distinguish between them in the Scot case and so we may expect the same threshold here.
The Government is suggesting that the offence will only catch the most extreme kind of behaviour. However this is exactly what Victoria State Premier Steve Bracks said when he brought in the Vilification law to Australia, explaining that it was confined to prohibit only the most noxious forms of conduct, and would promote racial and religious tolerance. It is difficult to accept that Pastor Scot's seminar could possibly fall into this category.
The final danger is that this proposed law could be used as a stick by which people can beat their religious opponents, as the Daniel Scot case demonstrates. Premier Radio is a Christian radio station based in London. In 2001 the Mysticism and Occultism Federation used five part-time monitors to listen in to the station with the deliberate intention of taking offence and making complaints against it. Eight of these complaints were upheld or partially upheld by the Radio Authority. The complaints were about preachers stating on air that salvation can only be found through a relationship with Jesus Christ and that other religions do not lead to God. As a result of these complaints the renewal of Premier Radio's broadcasting licence was put in jeopardy although thankfully it has been renewed.
It appears we are now living in situation where the Government is becoming increasingly hostile to the preaching of the Gospel. It is vital that Christians wake up and understand that their privileges and freedoms are in serious danger of being removed. I would therefore urge you to write to your Member of Parliament to ask him or her to vote against this Bill. You should also write peers in the House of Lords.
Finally, of course, we must pray that the Lord would stop this legislation. It will be a measure of His mercy in the midst of judgment if He does so.
I would love to end with some good news. The problem is that even if this measure is stopped the Government is trying to bring in a law to stop discrimination on religious grounds in the provision of goods and services which could have a serious impact on Christians who wish to maintain the integrity of their beliefs. There is increasing pressure on the Government to repeal the Blasphemy Law. However, let us take heart in the Lord's words in Luke 21:18: When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.