Legal action is being taken in the Court of Session in Edinburgh to put the brakes on the Scottish Government’s lightning-fast timetable for a Bill to tackle sectarian hatred.
The Bill is a response to a series of nasty incidents of sectarian hatred during the last Scottish football season.
But the Bill goes much wider than football and contains measures that may inadvertently interfere with civil liberty and free speech.
There is widespread concern that the Scottish Government is moving too fast, ignoring its responsibility to consult.
If the legal action is successful, the court could declare that the lack of consultation and the rushed timetable are unlawful and order the Government to slow down.
The legal action in Edinburgh is being taken by The Christian Institute and CARE for Scotland, represented in court by Aidan O’Neill QC.
It seeks to ensure there is time for proper public consultation and scrutiny, so that the free speech problems raised by the Bill can be addressed.
The Scottish Government wants the Bill to be rushed through the Scottish Parliament by 30 June – in time for the forthcoming Scottish football season.
But others, including the Law Society for Scotland, the Church of Scotland, and the Equality Network, have voiced their deep concerns about the rushed timescale.
The Christian Institute’s Mike Judge said: “We all wish to see the stain of sectarian hatred removed from our society, but we must not act in haste. This is too important to get wrong. There must be proper public consultation.
“It helps nobody if offenders are able to wriggle out of convictions because of mistakes in the law. And if legislation is needed, we must take care that it catches the guilty not the innocent.
“We know the Government doesn’t want to criminalise religious jokes, atheists criticising Christianity, journalists debating fundamentalist Islam, or peaceful preaching.
“But without a clear and specific free speech clause, this will happen. Even Roseanna Cunningham has refused to rule out that singing the national anthem could be caught by the Bill.
“The problem of sectarian hatred cannot be solved by legislation alone. If there is need for new laws, it is vital that the Government takes people with them.
“Rushed legislation that inadvertently impacts free speech could be divisive and damage community cohesion. That’s the last thing anyone wants to see.”