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Being offensive about religion 'should not be an offence'


By Joshua Rozenberg

(Filed: 19/05/2005)

Criticising religious beliefs is no basis for imposing criminal convictions, the barrister David Pannick, QC, will argue tonight.

Delivering the Margaret Howard Memorial Lecture in Oxford, Mr Pannick will launch a powerful attack on the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill announced in the Queen's Speech this week.

Under the Government's proposals, it would become a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour if you "intend to stir up religious hatred" or if your conduct is "likely to stir up" religious hatred. Prosecutions could be brought only by the Attorney General and a convicted person would face up to seven years in prison.

This would bring incitement to religious hatred in line with the existing offence of incitement to racial hatred. That law protects Jews and Sikhs - who are regarded as belonging to distinct racial groups - and the Government wants to extend this protection to multi-racial faiths, such as Islam.

But in a witty and irreverent lecture, Mr Pannick will argue that race and religion should not be treated in the same way. To make hostile comments about a person's race is to criticise the individual's innate characteristics - something that people cannot change and which says nothing about how they act. Because such comments insult a person's common humanity, he says, it is right that they should be restricted by law.

But to comment on an individual's religion is to criticise the conduct of an organisation to which that person chooses to belong, he points out.

Unlike racial groups, religions usually make claims about how society should be run. Religious beliefs have a significant impact on the way adherents treat each other and strongly influence how society is organised. Critical comments on religious beliefs may serve a valuable function in identifying and remedying abuse of power.

Mr Pannick believes that if the Government's proposal were to become law, novelists, playwrights, and comedians would need legal advice before strongly criticising members of the Catholic Church for failing to take adequate steps against paedophile priests.

The same would apply if they criticised Jews for Judaism's treatment of women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce; or Muslims for Islam's intolerance of "infidels" and any apparent discrimination against women and homosexuals.

In Mr Pannick's opinion, irreverently critical comment on religious topics, particularly by a comedian or a novelist, might well be regarded as "abusive or insulting". Even if the author's intention were to provoke debate on an issue of public importance, prosecutors might be able to establish that hatred was likely to be "stirred up".

Having good reason for making insulting comments that provoke hatred of a particular religious doctrine would be no defence. Nor would it be a defence that the defendant did not intend to stir up hatred. Because of the uncertainty inherent in so vague a criminal law, Mr Pannick concludes, it would inevitably have a chilling effect on freedom of _expression about religious beliefs and practices.

The Margaret Howard Memorial Lecture will be delivered at 5.45pm in the St Cross Building, Oxford. All are welcome.

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