Possession of a Bible could be considered an offence under the SNP’s proposed hate crime Bill, Roman Catholic bishops are warning.
The Scottish Government is proposing to change the law on hate crime by extending it to include protected characteristics, including religion, transgender identity and sexuality. “Abusive” speech which is “likely to stir up hatred” would be criminalised under the proposals.
It would also prohibit possession of “inflammatory material”, which the bishops say could include the Bible. This has been denied by the Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf, who claims it “will not prevent people having or expressing religious views or materials”.
In its submission to the Justice Committee’s consultation on the Bill, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland expressed its fears that the “low threshold” for offence could render the Bible “inflammatory”.
It also stated that any new law “must be carefully weighed against fundamental freedoms, such as the right to free speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
Anthony Horan, Director of the Roman Catholic parliamentary office, said that although the bishops acknowledged the stirring up of hatred as morally wrong, they were concerned about “the lack of clarity around definitions.”
In response, the Scottish Government claimed: “Religious beliefs are an integral part of Scottish society and this Bill does not change that in any way.”
Satirist Andrew Doyle has also joined the chorus of opposition to the controversial Bill.
In an article for The Spectator he expressed scepticism over Humsa Yousaf’s claims that free speech will not be affected.
According to the under-pressure Justice Secretary, Scots will still be able to express their views “as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended to stir up hatred or likely to stir up hatred.”
But Doyle maintains this fails to address “the problem of how such vague legislation is apt to be interpreted”.
“In accordance with all official law enforcement guidance in the UK, the website for Police Scotland defines an incident or crime as ‘hateful’ based on the perception of the ‘victim’”.
“If hatred is a matter of perception and not intent, and even the context of dramatic representation is considered irrelevant, how can we possibly safeguard against the abuse of state power?”
He concluded by saying the Bill “should be a matter of uttermost concern for those of us who still believe in the preservation of liberal values.”