An atheist activist has commended Scotland's hate crime Bill for its potential to pave the way for intense scrutiny of faith groups.
Ian Stewart, convener of Atheist Scotland, wrote in The Courier: "Atheists see some merit in Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf's Hate Crime Bill, as it will enable the prosecution of all Scotland's religions and their Holy Books for spreading hatred.
"It is utterly unacceptable that in progressive, social democratic Scotland that squalid, Bronze Age village disputes, as described in the Holy Books, about control of women, goats or water should give Scotland's "Holy Willies" authority to spout out vitriol against atheists, agnostics, apostates, sceptics, non-believers, women, trans people and homosexuals.
"We fully intend to monitor all Holy Books, sermons in places of worship and the social media accounts of the various religions and report any hatred to Police Scotland for criminal investigation."
The Scottish Government has stated the new Hate Crime and Public Order Bill will provide more clarity and consistency about what characteristics of person can be attacked and it be considered a hate crime. If passed by Parliament, the other characteristics to be protected by the legislation include age, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. The Bill also abolishes the offence of blasphemy which has not been prosecuted in Scotland for more than 175 years.
The new legislation would allow "discussion" and "criticism" of religion and sexual orientation, for example, but not "abuse", "insult", "ridicule" or anything "likely to stir up hatred". This is unlike similar laws in England and Wales which do allow these forms of speech.
Critics of the Bill include the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) as well as the National Secular Society, who has joined The Christian Institute in the 'Free to Disagree' campaign.
Simon Calvert, deputy director for public affairs at The Christian Institute, said Stewart's comments on the Bill is an example of how the law could be exploited.
"This is a perfect illustration of why the dangerous new 'stirring up hatred' offences are such a terrible idea," he said.
"They will give politically-motivated complainants like Mr Stewart a powerful weapon against their ideological opponents. Vexatious activists will be able to dial 999 and accuse someone of stirring up hatred and the police may have no alternative but to investigate.
"The threshold of the proposed offences is so low that Mr Stewart might well be able to persuade a police officer that certain unfashionable Bible verses or sermons are 'hate crimes'. Does the Scottish Government really want to expose church ministers to the risk of prosecution at the instigation of anti-religious zealots?
"The Bill says you only have to show that the words are 'abusive' and 'likely to stir up hatred' for an offence to be proved. In the current political climate, all kinds of legitimate speech gets tagged as 'abusive' and 'hateful' by cynical activists who are just trying to shut down debate."
Calvert claimed that the Bill would increase division and "do little to help real victims of crime".
The Bill is being examined by the Justice Committee. The review is expected to be completed by 18th December.