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UK News

Consultation closes on Scottish hate crime bill campaigners say could affect pastors

by Cara Bentley

Atheist and Christian campaigners are waiting to see what the Scottish Government will do with a Bill which they argue places considerable restrictions on free speech.

The Scottish Government says the new Hate Crime and Public Order Bill will provide greater clarity and consistency as it brings other types of protected characteristics under the same protections from hate speech as those who experience hatred because of their race. 

The other characteristics to be protected by the legislation include age, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

If passed by Parliament, the Bill would criminalise hate speech for these reasons and also provide new ‘stirring up’ of hatred offences - behaviour that encourages others to hate a particular group.

Critics include the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) as well as the National Secular Society, who have joined The Christian Institute in the 'Free to Disagree' campaign. 

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. 

The National Secular Society says the law would encourage the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. 

They argue: "Some people are so committed to their beliefs that nothing more than a robust assertion that their beliefs are false will be taken as abusive. Therefore, if we wish to apply criminal sanctions to protect people from feeling "abused" when someone criticises or attacks their beliefs, it is obvious that the beliefs themselves, as well as the individual who feels insulted or abused, are being protected."

Critics say the law could impact anyone from J.K. Rowling, commenting on transgender issues, to a preacher who believes gay marriage is wrong. 

Legal counsel for the Christian group ADF, Lorcán Price, told Premier: "There is a distinct possibility you will see prosecutions against both pastors and others who engage in the type of, let's say, 'robust criticism' that somebody might feel is abusive or insulting."

Price acknowledged the allowance of 'discussion and criticism' within the law but pointed out: "with these types of legislation, there's always the possibility of a chilling effect where people censor their own conduct for fear that they will have the police calling to their house. All it takes is for somebody to say 'I feel insulted and abused by what this Christian preacher has said' and then the police are obliged to investigate. What you'll find then is in many cases, people are being reluctant to talk critically about certain things because of the possibility of being involved in a prosecution."

The Free to Disagree campaign additionally points out that someone could be prosecuted within their own home, that 'hatred' is subjective and that an offence could be committed unwittingly. 

The Scottish Government say the new measures bring existing laws into one place, ushers legislation into the 21st century and makes it easier to interpret. 


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