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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

"Atheists should welcome a law against religious hatred"

The Guardian (UK) offers this commentary on a bill before British lawmakers that would criminalize the incitement of hatred against people on the grounds of their religious belief. The bill essentially covers 'religious hate speech.' The op-ed, written in defense of the bill, responds to various arguments against the passage of the bill.

First, the article notes the problem: "Mothers collecting children from school have been abused and assaulted. So have men attending their places of worship. Homes have been stoned and fire-bombed. Recently it has been Muslim mothers, Muslim men, Muslim homes. Yet at present our laws offer no special protection to Muslims against incitement to these acts, even though it provides such protection to Jews and Sikhs and some Christians."

As to the arguments against the bill, the author claims that the incitement of religious hatred bill would not extend to blasphemy, as the common law offense that remains on the books today only protects statements made in reference to the Church of England.

Moreover, the bill is not over-inclusive in the sense that it will criminalize more speech than it was intended to cover: the bill "is narrowly drawn, confining the offence to expressions or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred.... To fall foul of the law, offenders must use threats, abuse or insults that are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion, or are likely to do so" (empahsis added).

According to the author, the bill is not a political tool used by the government to attract the support of Muslim voters that was lost after the war in Iraq because the bill was introduced after 9/11 but before the war in Iraq was being seriously considered.

In addition, the law does not confer special protection on certain religious groups -- or all religions -- because "it also outlaws incitement to hatred of people because they don't have any religious beliefs " (empahsis added).

In response to the argument that "while it was right to outlaw hatred on the grounds of race, it's not right to apply it to religion because, although you can't change your race, you can change your religion", the author provides the following retort: "religious belief isn't as optional as some people seem to think. In reality most people remain with the belief, or absence of belief, of the group in which they were born and brought up."

In conclusion, the author states, "Changes in the law bring about changes in behaviour, partly by acting as a deterrent and partly by declaring that something is wrong. We know the law against incitement to racial hatred has had that effect. Incitement to religious hatred is just as wrong, so the law should declare it wrong."

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