Laws in the UK ban incitement to hatred and violence, including on account of religion or belief, as well as harassment, victimisation and discrimination by organisations against individuals on those same grounds. Although we have concerns about exemptions from the latter, we believe that these laws strike the right balance in protecting freedom of speech and expression, and work to defend them. Prior to 2008 we campaigned for the repeal of the blasphemy law in England and Wales, and still work for similar changes elsewhere.
We support protection of vulnerable people and minority religious groups, as long as legitimate criticism of religions and religious practices are fully protected in law. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 came into force on 16 February 2006. This Act makes provision about offences involving stirring up hatred against persons on religious grounds. Inciting violence against people was already illegal – what is now also illegal is to incite others to hate people, on the basis of their religious beliefs – or their lack of religious beliefs.
However, there is a very important section in the Act, which the BHA welcomes, which states:
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.
This makes it clear that the law is not intended to protect beliefs, but to protect people. Although the law protects people, the campaign must continue to ensure that there is no new law, and that the Act is not used to protect religions, religious beliefs, and religious doctrine from criticism.
What we’re doing
We lobbied for a number of years on the various stages of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Since the Religious Offences Bill was introduced in 2002, until it finally became the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, the BHA gave written and oral evidence to parliament on incitement to religious hatred, wrote briefings and sent out press releases.
Now we monitor any activity under the new law and related laws to ensure that they are not misused and free speech is not curtailed. For example, we spoke out when in 2012 a poster an elderly man placed in his window calling religions ‘fairy tales’ was deemed as potentially ‘offensive’ under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. We were pleased when section 5 was subsequently repealed.
Let us know of any attempts you hear of to use the law, or the threat of the law, to censor legitimate criticisms of religious or non-religious beliefs or practices.
You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.