SNP’s new hate crime law could lead to prosecution simply for expressing religious views

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The proposed legislation brought forward by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf will introduce a stirring-up of hate offence on characteristics including disability, sexual orientation and age. As well as this, the bill as drafted could empower police to seize “forfeited material” to “be disposed of in such manner as the court may direct” meaning religious bibles could also be seized.

Critics fear the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, which centres around plans for a new offence of “stirring up hatred”, will severely impact on freedom of expression.

Concerns have been raised by religious organisations that ministers could be prosecuted under the new legislation for delivering faith services.

The Christian Institute, which has submitted a response to MSPs on Holyrood’s Justice Committee, said the laws risk the “chilling effect on free speech”.

Ciarán Kelly, Deputy Director at The Christian Institute, told this website: “We’ve already been helping street preachers wrongfully arrested for preaching the Bible in public.

“There may not even be a prosecution never mind a conviction, but it risks creating a chilling effect on free speech – something that the ‘stirring up hatred’ offences would exacerbate.

“The new offences cover ‘abusive’ behaviour intended to ‘stir up hatred’ but no explanation is given as to what these terms actually mean.

“Would it be ‘abusive’ and ‘hateful’ to quote the Bible’s teaching on marriage, gender or sexual ethics? Some groups would say yes.

“There is a real risk of malicious reports from activists who wish to stop Christians expressing their beliefs.

“Provisions on ‘inflammatory material’ could be used against Christian books, sermons by church ministers – even the Bible itself.

“The potential reach of the offences is enormous, affecting religious practice in public and in private.

“Christians should not live in fear of expressing their beliefs.”

A submission to MSPs from the Network of Sikh Organisations said the legislation “could give a free pass to those who want to censor inconvenient chapters” in history and curtail the freedom of religious belief of faiths.

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The group suggested it would result in pitting one “religious group against another.”

Liam Kerr MSP, Scottish Conservative shadow justice spokesman, added: “This is yet another damning verdict on the SNP’s seriously flawed hate crime bill.

“We’ve consistently warned about the chilling threat to free speech and religious organisations simply cannot be ignored.

“It cannot be right to bring in a law under which people of faith would live in fear of expressing their beliefs.

“The SNP can’t keep trying to force through dangerous attacks on freedom of speech and belief. Genuine hate crime should be punished but this law goes too far.”

The Free Church of Scotland also claimed faith ministers would “need to have their lawyer on speed dial to check their sermon each week does not fall foul of the offence of stirring up hatred”.

The group, which is a Presbyterian denomination, also raised concerns about people being in possession of religious materials. They said: “The right for a warrant to be issued to enter a premise and remove inflammatory material and ultimately destroy it is deeply worrying to us as it could lead to certain books and publications essentially being banned.

“As books are confiscated and destroyed, precedents would develop that would amount to a list of banned books . . . and as Christians, we are deeply concerned that the Bible could fall foul of this offence.”

Following the backlash, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf recently changed the controversial “stirring up” offences section of the hate crime bill but many still believe the changes don’t go far enough.

“Stirring up offences” are set to be limited to “intent” relating to age, disability, religion, and sexual orientation and therefore prosecutions can only be brought in this respect. 

A similar act known as Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was introduced in 2012 and made it a criminal offence for football fans to discriminate against certain traits such as religion, ethnic identity, class, or region at matches. 

However, it was scrapped in 2018 following severe concerns over freedom of speech and claims that it unfairly targeted Scottish football fans.

In response, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “These suggestions are completely unfounded and totally incorrect. 

“The Bill does not prevent people expressing religious views nor does it seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way.

“The law should protect vulnerable groups and minorities while respecting rights of freedom of expression and this Bill.”

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