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Sunday, 1 August 2010

Blasphemy Legislation Threatens Freedom of Speech, Warns Civitas

Blasphemy Is Back as 'Hate' Legislation Threatens Freedom of Speech, Warns Civitas

Legislation and the politically–motivated prosecution of individuals for “religious hatred” is merely the reintroduction of ancient blasphemy laws which threaten freedom of speech, a new publication by independent think tank Civitas has warned.
In a book titled A New Inquisition: Religious Persecution in Britain Today, Jon Gower Davies, formerly the Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University, reveals the “bizarre and oppressive nature of judicial attempts to prosecute individuals for religious hatred” and of how this “new legal concept has resulted in some singularly worrying court cases,” a Civitas press release said.
“Hate legislation removes an increasing quantity of matters traditionally dealt with in civil society to the domain of the state and the courts,” Civitas continued, adding that this was merely the old Blasphemy Law “by the backdoor.”
Civitas pointed out that the Blasphemy Law was abolished in 2008, but has re-emerged in a new and radically augmented guise.
“Today, individuals are not charged with blasphemy, but with causing 'religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress' under the Public Order Act.
“Jon Davies argues that the growth in accusations of 'hate crime' threatens freedom of speech because they destroy the possibility and practice of open, sociable and critical discussion of religion.
“Whilst the total number of racial and religious hate crimes fell from 13,201 in 2006-7 to 11,845 in 2008-9, the volume of hate legislation has rapidly expanded,” Civitas continued.
“There are now more than 35 Acts of Parliament, 52 Statutory Instruments, 13 Codes of Practice, 3 Codes of Guidance and 16 European Commission Directives which bear on 'discrimination.' And most recently, the Single Equality Act was passed by Parliament in April 2010."
Despite all this legislation, a proper legal definition of 'hatred' remains elusive. According to the new Civitas book, a government action plan states that a “(religious) hate crime is a criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a persons religion or perceived religion.”
Furthermore, Civitas points out, “hatred” is “not only presented as an offence on its own account, but can also be seen as something which aggravates ordinary public order offences. When an ordinary offence is aggravated by 'hatred' based on race, religion, gender, or age, then the sentence too is 'aggravated' (i.e. increased).”
Jon Davies argues that these 'definitions' are without substance, and inevitably result in confusion and silliness in their application.
“The attempt to define a 'hate incident' in terms of 'hostility' results in perilous imprecision: it is not possible to know when individuals have been hated or, indeed, when they have themselves been hating and for how long and to what depth and to what effect.
“The essence of the criminal justice system should be justice and impartiality, but turning religious hatred into a criminal offence turns police, the Crown Prosecution Service and judges into surrogate theologians a kind of theocracy (an uncomfortable theocracy at that) by the backdoor,” the book says.
“To demonstrate the oppressive oddity of judicial attempts to regulate religious hatred, Jon Davies describes the 2009 case of Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, owners of the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool.
“Following a discussion between the Vogelenzangs and a guest at their hotel, Mrs Erica Tazi, about the respective merits of her religion (Islam) and theirs (Christianity), Mrs Tazi made a formal complaint to the Merseyside police about what she said were offensive remarks made by the Vogelenzangs.
“They were subject to a grim and prolonged ordeal when they were accused of a religiously aggravated hate crime. For several months they were pursued by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
“The Vogelenzangs were prosecuted contrary to the evidence; when the full story came to court, it transpired that a Muslim doctor had also been eating breakfast in the hotel and found nothing objectionable about the couple's conduct. Jon Davies calls the case: '...a hackle-raising demonstration of disquieting changes in the relationship between our history, the citizen, his or her religion, his or her civil society and the state'.
“He argues that hate legislation has demolished several of the traditional defences of the citizen. For example, the 'burden of proof' is effectively reversed under section 66(5) of the Equality Act (2006), because whilst by long-established practice the Vogelenzangs should have been regarded as innocent until proven guilty: '[There was a] public presumption of culpability... the local NHS authority [which provided 80 per cent of the Bounty House income] cancelled their bookings'.
“There is evidence of at best arbitrary, at worst biased, application of the law. In a recent case a Muslim man defaced a war memorial (a Christian and national symbol) in Burton upon Trent.
“He sprayed the words 'Islam will dominate the world-Osama is on his way' and 'Kill Gordon Brown' across the plinth. He was prosecuted for criminal damage, that is for neither a racially nor a religiously aggravated offence.”
Recommended reading:  A New Inquisition: Religious Persecution in Britain Today
By Jon Gower Davies — Open societies in which we try to settle our differences without violence have been a great human achievement. However, because freedom of speech is the prevailing view in Britain, we are not as alert to the risk of its overthrow as we should be.
Jon Gower Davies, former Head of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Newcastle, examines the new legal concept of religious hatred and provides striking examples from recent legal cases to reveal the oppressive and bizarre nature of judicial attempts to regulate such things.
Hate legislation removes an increasing quantity of matters traditionally dealt with in civil society, to the domain of the state and the courts.
Furthermore, the exercise of such legislation seems to create the very atmosphere it was designed to prevent - hatred.
Jon Davies warns against developments which will make traditional public debates about religion and its critics impossible. He hopes for a British culture which validates a public seeking for religious truth and is more or less at ease with jokes and ribaldries, and he is profoundly ill at ease with censorship of them or with threats made against their authors. Jon Davies shows why the liberal majority needs to reassert the convention that the law should be used not as a weapon to suppress unpopular opinions, but rather as the protector of free speech. P/B 77 pp. £8.00 including P&P Click here to purchase online.