BY DAVID V BARRETT
THE CATHOLIC archbishops of England and Wales may challenge the Government next week by criticising the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill after senior Catholic MPs and peers called it “dangerous”, “unenforceable” and “absolute nonsense”.
The Bill, which was introduced to the House of Commons last week and will receive its Second Reading on Tuesday, will make it an offence punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment to stir up religious hatred.
But Catholic critics – who include Lord St John, Lord Alton, Baroness Williams, Ann Widdecombe and John Gummer – say the Bill is badly drafted and unworkable.
Some of the archbishops had formerly been seen to be sympathetic to the Bill, though the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales itself had not expressed a view. But next Monday the standing committee of the bishops’ conference will discuss the Bill in depth.
The committee is made up of the five metropolitan archbishops of Westminster, Liverpool, Southwark, Birmingham and Cardiff, along with Bishop Mark Jabale of Menevia and Mgr Andrew Summersgill, the general secretary of the bishops’ conference.
“The bishops are aware of the disquiet at the Bill, especially among many Catholic MPs and peers, and will be looking at it closely at a meeting next week,” said Austen Ivereigh, spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
Concerns expressed about the Bill include its detrimental effects on free dom of speech, the vagueness of its language and the fear that if it becomes law it might be misapplied.
According to the Home Office, penalties would be enforced “where threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour are used by someone who intends to stir up hatred against a group of people defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief, or it is likely that such hatred will be stirred up”.
The maximum penalty for anybody convicted of the new offence would be seven years’ imprisonment The Bill is an extension to the racial hatred provisions of the 1986 Public Order Act. Under that Act, “monoethnic religious groups” such as Jews and Sikhs receive protection. The new Bill extends the same protection to “all faith communities ... regardless of whether members of that group share a common ethnic background”.
These include not only Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other recognised world religions, but sects or groups within a religion, and also groups defined by a lack of religious belief such as atheism and humanism. Offences need not be based on the beliefs of the group attacked, but even on “the fact that the group do not share the particular religious beliefs of the perpetrator”.
The Bill has been criticised for its vagueness. One sentence in the Bill’s explanatory notes uses the word “likely” three times: “for material to be likely to stir up racial or religious hatred it need only be shown that it was likely to be seen or heard by a person in whom it is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred”.
Catholic peers have been outspoken in their opposition to the Bill.
“I think it’s quite a dangerous Bill,” Baroness Williams told The Catholic Herald. “It’s important to protect against persecution, but this is the wrong way to go about it. It will restrict freedom of expression in this area. I’ve had a huge pile of post about it, including a lot from Anglican clergy.” Lord St John of Fawsley said: “It’s absolute nonsense. Worse than that, it’s positively harmful. It would lead to an increase in religious tension, it would put strains on relations between people of different religions, which are close and warm in this country and don’t need to be undermined by the law. The sooner we get rid of this dangerous and unnecessary Bill the better.” Former Times editor Lord ReesMogg said: “It’s very understandable but a mistake. It’s not likely to work. It’s not very well drafted. It’s an interference with freedom of speech. It could be used as a defence by all kinds of sinister sects — any group is covered. There will be no significant benefit.” But Home Office Minister Paul Goggins, who is also Catholic, was