Incitement to Religious Hatred


  • The Labour Government first tried to introduce an offence of ‘incitement to religious hatred’ in November 2001 in its Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. However, it was forced to drop the idea the following month after two defeats in the House of Lords.
  • In November 2004 the then Government tried again, slipping the offence into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. In April 2005, with time running out before the General Election, the Government was forced to drop the proposed offence.
  • Following the General Election the Labour Government re-introduced the offence in the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in June 2005. Throughout 2005 an unprecedented campaign against the Bill by Christians and secular groups resulted in sustained opposition to the Bill in both Parliament and the media.
  • On 31 January 2006 the Government suffered extraordinary defeats in the House of Commons over the proposed offence. In two successive votes MPs backed House of Lords amendments that dramatically narrowed the scope of the law and introduced a broad protection for free speech. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill received Royal Assent in February 2006, but with the excellent Lords safeguards included.
  • Although the Act only covers England and Wales it had the potential to profoundly affect Scotland. Scottish publishers would have been liable for any publications sold in England or Wales as would any Scottish television or radio broadcast transmitted south of the border.

The proposed offence

  • The Government’s original proposal for an incitement to religious hatred law would have seriously harmed freedom of speech and had the potential to criminalise ordinary religious debate.
  • The following is an extract of the proposed Offence before it was amended by the House of Lords:
    A person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if—

    • he intends thereby to stir up racial or religious hatred, or
    • having regard to all the circumstances the words, behaviour or material are (or is) likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.
  • The proposed offence set out alternatives ranging from threatening to insulting words. It was not that the words be threatening and abusive and insulting but threatening or abusive or insulting.
  • Under the proposed offence, a conviction could have been secured if the prosecutor could prove that “insulting words” were used and: “…having regard to all the circumstances, the words, behaviour or material are (or is) likely to be heard by any person in whom they are (or it is likely) to stir up racial or religious hatred.”
  • The legal threshold of what is deemed to be “insulting words” is disturbingly low following the case of Harry Hammond v DPP [2004] EWHC 69. A pensioner who displayed a sign equating homosexuality with immorality was deemed to have used insulting words for the purposes of a public order offence.
  • Given the Hammond case as legal precedent, it would be easy to see how a person of a non-Christian faith could be insulted by the claim of the Christian faith that the only way to God is through His Son, Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
  • The wording of the Bill went much further than intentional stirring up of hatred. In addition, the Bill gave no definition of religion; it simply says that “‘Religious hatred’ means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief”.
  • Whilst the offence excludes behaviour which takes place within a “dwelling”, this exception did not extend to churches or other places of worship. Sunday morning sermons were therefore within the ambit of the Bill.
  • However, it had always been clear from the wording of the offence that it was not a blanket ban on preaching the Gospel. The Bill would not have outlawed all preaching about the uniqueness of salvation in Christ or criticism of religious belief overnight. Nevertheless, at its lowest threshold the offence criminalised “insulting words likely to stir up religious hatred”. And court cases could have held this to outlaw evangelism or reasonable opposition to particular religious beliefs. Under the law proposed by the Government, the fear was that case after case would ratchet up restrictions on free speech.

The House of Lords amendments

  • The House of Lords amendments deleted the most troublesome parts of the offence. They removed the words “abusive” or “insulting” and removed the “likely” test, so that only threatening conduct intended to incite religious hatred is covered.
  • The House of Lords also introduced a sweeping free speech defence that protects:

    “…discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.”1

  • The Government told the House of Commons on 31 January that if the Lords amendments were passed “…it would be virtually impossible to bring a successful prosecution.”2

Biblical arguments

Christians are to pray for those in authority and for the state to provide freedom for the gospel to be preached and for men to live “quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). (See Christian Freedoms and Heritage.)

Jesus’ final command to his followers before his ascension was that they should “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15) and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Telling others about Christ and his teachings is central to the Christian life (1 Peter 3:15-16). Christians must therefore oppose any law which could prevent the preaching of the Gospel.

Key arguments

  • The Government argued the proposed offence was needed for two reasons:3
    • To combat activities of extremists who stir up hatred against people because of their religious beliefs.
    • To close a loophole that exists under the current incitement to racial hatred laws, whereby mono-ethnic faith groups such as Jews or Sikhs are protected from those who stir up hatred against them, but multi-ethnic faith groups are not.
  • However, there was already a criminal offence to incite a crime against another person, whether or not religion is the cause. In addition, the ‘religiously aggravated’ offences (passed in 2001) could also be used.
  • ‘Religious belief’ is not like race. Religious belief and atheism are about ideas on which people can change their minds and have vigorous debate. However, no-one can choose their race.
  • The race laws only protect Jews and Sikhs as a race. The law does not protect their religion as a religion but as a sign of their race. The proposed offence could see courts adjudicating on the fundamental beliefs of Jews and Sikhs, as well as Muslims and Christians, in an unprecedented way.
  • Some cults are litigious. They will be able to hold the threat of litigation over any one who criticises them.
  • Even if prosecutions against ordinary religious debate are unsuccessful, the threat of prosecution may cause many to keep quiet. This will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.
  • In a case under a similar law in Australia a pastor was found guilty of “religious vilification” for highlighting the dangers of fundamentalist Islam and Sharia law.
  • Attempts have already been made in the UK to stop responsible evangelism to Muslims. In 2002 police visited a member of a church near Rochdale, Lancashire and told him he had committed a serious racial offence by distributing Christian literature to Muslims. The church member took legal advice which confirmed the church had not broken any law and the police had acted wrongly. This was subsequently confirmed by the police. But a new religious incitement offence would have made the situation substantially worse and could have resulted in a prosecution.
  1. 1Racial and Religious Hatred Acts, Section 29J
  2. 2House of Commons, Hansard, 31 January 2006, cols 189-190
  3. 3Incitement to Religious Hatred Frequently Asked Questions, see as at 23 March 2005