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Religious Hatred: the last chance to get it right

The British Humanist Association welcomes the fact that the government seems finally to have recognised that abusing, insulting or ridiculing religious beliefs and practices must not become unlawful, but we still have serious concerns about the government amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, to be debated in the Commons on Tuesday.   We have briefed MPs for the debate.

The British Humanist Association, from the very first attempt to legislate against incitement to religious hatred in 2001, has always recognised the need to protect vulnerable minorities from having hatred incited against them, and we have worked constructively with Home Office officials in attempting to improve the present Bill.

There have certainly been some improvements to the proposed law over that time, even if the government only really started to listen after a heavy defeat in the Lords, and the BHA welcomes the fact that the present Government amendments go further than previously in addressing our concerns and the concerns of others.   In particular, we welcome their acceptance that the new law should be separate from the existing offence of inciting racial hatred, and that a clause protecting the free criticism of religion and religious practices (as distinct from religious believers) is needed.

But the government’s proposals to replace the Lords’ amendments are still flawed, and the BHA therefore supports the amendments proposed by the cross-party group of MPs to protect free speech.  

The BHA is also calling for the law on blasphemy and blasphemous libel to be abolished as this Bill comes into law, and for the law to protect humanists and others with positive non-religious beliefs, rather than simply the absence of any religious beliefs.

“The BHA has always supported a law against incitement of hatred against people on the basis of their religious or non-religious beliefs,” said Hanne Stinson, BHA executive director, “but only if there are sufficient safeguards to protect free speech and the right to criticise religious beliefs and practices.   The government is moving in the right direction, but still hasn’t got it right.   We believe that the cross-party amendments to the government’s amendments will achieve the right balance.”

Notes for Editors: 

The British Humanist Association is the largest organisation in the UK dedicated to lobbying for the rights of humanists and the non-religious. It has campaigned for many years against faith schools and for an inclusive system of community schools.  

Click here for the BHA briefing for the Commons debate.

Click here for background information on the BHA’s campaign

For further information or comment contact Andrew Copson or Hanne Stinson or telephone 020 7079 3580 or 07855 380633. 

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