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World News

Christian campaigners fear Scotland's hate crime law will hamper freedom of speech

by Donna Birrell

Christian campaigners fear the ability to have honest conversations around subjects such as same-sex marriage and transgender rights will be hampered when new hate crime legislation comes into force in Scotland. 

The legislation, which will criminalise threats and abuse intended to stir up hatred, is coming into force on Monday.

It applies to religion, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and transgender identity. Campaigners say the new law could be weaponised to target innocent people.

Lois McLatchie Miller from Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF Int) told Premier Christian News she is concerned the way the law has been written could lead to churchgoers being criminalised for their beliefs. 

She said: "Nobody wants to make anyone feel hated, especially not as Christians. One of the concerns is the law around 'stirring up hatred'. Even if we disagree that's what's happened, we could potentially be liable for prosecution and the penalties in this law are very harsh. It's up to seven years in prison as a maximum sentence for somebody who breaks this law. So it's a very serious situation."

Under the new law, if something is said that is perceived as stirring up hatred against any of the five categories, it could lead to a criminal offence.

McLatchie Miller says there are legitimate concerns about how this will impact free speech. 

"People are going to be a little bit scared to engage in important conversations about their faith, about gender, about society, about marriage, about all these hot-button issues.

"Of course, nobody wants to stir up hatred, and many of us condemn the intent to stir up hatred. But the concern is here that in society, we often have disagreements with one another. It's clear that many of us have disagreements about the topic of gender, the topic of marriage, and what it means to be best protecting and caring for children who are struggling with these issues. That often leads to very sensitive conversations taking place. But if it means that we may be guilty of criminal offence by saying something that accidentally is offensive, or is perceived to be offensive by others around us simply for putting forward a point of view, it's a very difficult scenario."

Rebecca Crowther, chief executive of Equality Network in Scotland, told Sky News: "This legislation is not going to catch people online saying things that I might disagree with, that you might disagree with, things that might upset me, things that might upset others in the community.

"Freedom of expression is really important, and there's a defence for that within the legislation.

"People are free to say what they like, even if it might cause offence or it might cause shock or disturb people, that's just what we live with when we live with the freedom of speech.

"What it does legislate against is when that freedom of speech strays into something that is abusive, that could cause fear and alarm, and that also incites hatred or incites people to act on that hatred."

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