MSPs have voted 92-29 in favour of a new Scottish law that criminalises ‘abusive speech’ in public or in private.
The new law is seen by all sides as an improvement on what the Scottish Government originally proposed, but some concerns remain about civil liberties.
To breach the new law, a person must have spoken or behaved in a threatening or abusive manner, intentionally or recklessly causing (or likely to cause) a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm.
The offence can apply to a one-off incident and reaches into private situations as well as public.
A person charged with such an offence will not be found guilty if they can show that their conduct was, in the particular circumstances, reasonable.
The new offence was proposed as part of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill.
On the face of it, such a law holds little fear for Christians who express biblical truth in public or private.
The Government Minister, Kenny MacAskill, told Parliament that the law ought not limit reasonable expression of religious belief.
“We are aware of and have taken on board the concerns of some in the Christian community and we have changed what was proposed”, he said.
On previous occasions the Scottish Government said a new law was needed to deal with incidents of domestic abuse where Breach of the Peace offences could not be used.
However, the law passed yesterday by the Scottish Parliament applies much more broadly than domestic situations. It applies to anyone, anywhere in Scotland.
Conservative MSP, John Lamont, said he feared the new law “could inadvertently interfere with civil liberties and free speech”.
He said the new offence “applies far beyond domestic relationships” and it “can apply to one-off comments by anyone anywhere in Scotland, and carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.”
Liberal Democrat MSP, Robert Brown, also voiced unease. He said: “The central concern is that we do not want to criminalise actions that are expressions of opinion, even if they might distress other people.”
The Christian Institute’s Mike Judge said: “We are pleased that the final proposal is an improvement on what was originally put forward.
“It remains to be seen how this new law will be applied on the ground. But in the meantime Christians should feel free to continue reasonably expressing their beliefs.”