The Racial and Religious Hatred Act comes into force in October, carrying a threat of prison terms for a person who tries to stir up religious hatred. However, its free speech exemptions are so wide that convictions could be difficult, a lawyer said.
The new law creates an offence of using threatening words or behaviour to stir up religious hatred. Offences can be written, spoken, broadcast or published words or actions. Religious hatred includes hatred against a group defined by their religious belief or lack of religious belief.
The Act, not to be confused with existing legislation on racial and religious discrimination, amends the Public Order Act of 1986 and comes into force on October 1 2007.
The Public Order Act introduced the offence of incitement to racial hatred. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act introduces the offence of religious hatred. (Despite the Act's name, it does not address racial hatred.)
The new Act was passed to close a loophole: To date, only Jews and Sikhs were protected by the provisions of incitement to racial hatred. According to the Government, some extremists exploited this loophole, using religious terms to identify victims whom they would have previously identified using racial terms. From next month, the law will extend protection to followers of all religions.
However, the Act is a diluted version of the bill that was first introduced by the Government to Parliament after a high-profile campaign by free speech advocates including comic actor Rowan Atkinson.
The bill originally outlawed words and behaviour that insulted or abused religious groups. The House of Lords removed those provisions and limited the offence to those who used threatening words or behaviour only. They also removed the 'reckless' element of the offence, restricting it to intentional offences. The Government's failure to overturn these amendments was blamed on miscalculations by Government whips, who had not called in sufficient MPs to win the vote.
The new offence can be committed by broadcasting, writing in a blog or on a website, recording sounds which are threatening, or in the performance of a play if there is an intent to stir up religious hatred.
Offences can be punished by a prison term of up to seven years and an unlimited fine.
Where a company is found guilty of an offence and it is shown that the offence was committed with the consent or connivance of a director or manager, that person as well as the company itself can be punished.
There is a wide exemption for freedom of speech. The Act states:
"Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts 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."
David Woods, a litigation specialist with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said this is so wide that prosecutors may be deterred from bringing all but the clearest-cut cases of criminal behaviour.
"Some accused will argue that their anti-religious behaviour was an expression of abuse or an effort to change someone's beliefs, and that behaviour is lawful," he said. "The defence lawyer only needs to give grounds for a reasonable doubt to keep a client out of prison."
"When the Government proposed this law it said it was protecting the believer, not the belief. But that’s a distinction that defence teams will endeavour to exploit," said Woods.
A separate Order, also in force from October 1, protects information society services like ISPs and search engines. While it makes clear that a UK-based ISP can commit an offence under the Act anywhere in Europe, it also protects these businesses when they are acting as mere conduits or offering caching or hosting services. The Order also explains the circumstances in which a service provider established in another European state can be prosecuted in the UK.
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The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006
The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 (Commencement No.1) Order 2007
The Electronic Commerce Directive (Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006) Regulations 2007