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.
We campaign to ensure that the hate crime legislation across the UK is fit for purpose, providing protection for all victims of religion or belief-based crimes. For instance, we are currently working to see the crime of ‘religious hatred’ expanded to explicitly cover incitement to hatred against humanists as well.
Prior to 2008, we campaigned for the repeal of the blasphemy law in England and Wales, and still work for similar changes in the rest of the UK and internationally.
We support the 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 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 Humanists UK welcomed at the time of its passing, 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.
However, there are two ways in which the law must be improved. Currently, the definition of religious hatred used in the 2006 Act, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 protects victims who could be targeted because of the absence of religion (being an atheist). But there are two shortcomings with this. First, this is far from obvious from a crime called ‘religious hatred’. The crime needs renaming to ‘religion or belief hatred’ or something similar. And second, this definition does not protect individuals who are targeted because they positively hold non-religious worldviews, such as humanism. We are campaigning to change this definition.
In 2018, the Law Commission was commissioned to conduct a review of hate crime laws. We will be feeding into this review.
What we’re doing
- In 2019, we wrote to the Law Commission pointing out the issues with the current name and definition of ‘religious hatred’. It is beginning to conduct a review of the laws, which we will be feeding into.
- We lobbied for a number of years on the various stages of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. From when the Religious Offences Bill was introduced in 2002, until it finally became the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, we gave written and oral evidence to parliament on incitement to religious hatred, wrote briefings, and sent out press releases.
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 Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK.