Media Release and Calling Notice
CAMPAIGNERS MEET TO OPPOSE FLAWED INCITEMENT TO RELIGIOUS HATRED LAWS
Campaigners from across the political and religious spectrum and from the worlds of entertainment, writing and journalism are meeting in the House of Commons tonight (Monday, December 6th 2004) to set out their opposition to the Government’s proposed news laws on incitement to religious hatred, which are being included in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill due to have its Second Reading on Tuesday afternoon.
MPs and peers from all three main parties are due to address the meeting at 5.30pm in Portcullis House, along with actor Rowan Atkinson, journalist and writer Joan Smith, Human Rights Lawyer Anthony Lester QC and speakers from Christian groups like the Barnabas Fund and the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, as well as the National Secular Society.
DR EVAN HARRIS, Liberal Democrat MP chairing the meeting, said, “There is a great deal of concern about these proposals across political parties. There are already enough laws to deal with incitement to violence and to deal with disorderly behaviour based on religious grounds, but it is essential that we maintain free speech in discussing and criticising religious ideas, doctrines and practices.”
DOMINIC GRIEVE, Conservative MP, said, “Although I am sure well-intentioned, the Government’s religious hatred proposal risks being completely counter-productive. I believe it is unworkable and will lead to constant arguments that robustly expressed views on other people’s religious beliefs are criminal. It also threatens a long tradition in this country of freedom to debunk religious beliefs.”
ALICE MAHON, Labour MP, said, “In the eyes of some in the minority communities and their leaders this law should be able to curb criticism of both religious practices and of religious leaders. We dare not allow any law to permit this.”
WILFRED WONG, Researcher and Parliamentary Officer for the Jubilee Campaign, a human rights pressure group, lobbying to protect children’s rights and the persecuted Church said, “Passing laws against the incitement of religious hatred is simply unworkable and appears to be an attempt by the current government to salvage from the Muslim community votes which they lost over the Iraq war. Although no reasonable person wants religious hatred to be incited, there is no way that the incitement of religious hatred can be defined in law so clearly and narrowly that such legislation is not grossly misused as a means of censoring fair comments and criticisms of religion and certain religious practice.”
KEITH PORTEOUS WOOD, Executive Director, National Secular Society, said, “Freedom of expression is not just an abstract concept, it is a vital tool to protect society from extremism, and religious extremism is becoming an ever-growing danger. Since the Salman Rushdie affair debate is being increasingly stifled. Commentators already are being intimidated not just by the zealous but by a fear of offending. The recently introduced religiously aggravated offences and the proposed incitement legislation will silence many moderating voices either directly, or through the perhaps greater danger of self-censorship.”
ROWAN ATKINSON, the actor, who spoke out three years ago when the Government first tried – unsuccessfully – to introduce the same measure, said, “Freedom of expression must be protected for artists and entertainers and we must not accept a bar on the lampooning of religion and religious leaders. There is an obvious difference between the behaviour of racist agitators who can be prosecuted under existing laws, and the activities of satirists and writers who may choose to make comedy or criticism of religious belief, practices or leaders just as they do with politics. It is one of the reasons why we have free speech.”
DR DON HORROCKS, Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, said, “We are deeply concerned that the rights and freedoms we have hitherto enjoyed could be dangerously eroded in the future as a result of the interpretation of this law. Even though the Government may insist that they will set a high tolerance threshold, there is still serious concern that over time a succession of determined martyrs will cause the Courts increasingly to interfere with free religious expression and erode tolerance.”
PAUL COOK, Advocacy Manager of Barnabas Fund, a Christian organisation which works for persecuted Christian minorities, said, “There is a real danger that this law could be used by extremists to silence organizations like ourselves from highlighting the persecution of Christians and other human rights abuses which occur within some religious communities.”
ANTHONY LESTER QC, Liberal Democrat Peer said, “British Muslims need the same protection against religious discrimination (including harassment and pressure to discriminate) as is now enjoyed by ethnic minorities. There is also a need to abolish the archaic offence of blasphemy which criminalizes critical attacks on Christianity. What we do not need is a new offence of inciting religious hatred (rather than violence) that is ambiguous and chills the enjoyment of the free speech of everyone, including Muslims.”
JOAN SMITH, Journalist and Writer, said, “People need protection, ideas do not – they have to stand or fall by their merits. The proposed law is an invitation to people with extreme religious views to avoid debate by claiming that they, rather than their beliefs, have been attacked. It is censorship by the back door.”
MARK MULLINS, barrister, on behalf of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship said, “We are concerned that this proposed law will unintentionally prevent the legitimate preaching of the Christian Gospel and risks reducing the parameters of debate about religion generally.”
1. More details – Laure Thomas (office of Dr Harris) 020 7219 5128 2. The meeting will – subject to space – be open to the media. Entry to the public is via the entrance on Embankment. 3. Requests for permission to film or record or for separate interviews should be directed to Ms Thomas as above in the first instance. 4. Mr Atkinson is not making further comments or doing any interviews until the meeting on Monday evening.
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