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Articles  about  Religiously  Aggravated  Offences

(These are copies of two articles written by and of Neil Addison. They are provided on web site   www.ReligionLaw.co.uk   and may be downloaded for personal, but not business, use. If quoted from the source must be acknowledged. )

 

WHY THE SPANISH INQUISITION JOKE MAY BE ILLEGAL

(An Article by and Neil Addison published in The Times 19th February 2002)

As Christians prepare for Lent and Muslims for the annual Mecca pilgrimage, MPs will soon be debating once again whether incitement to religious hatred should be an offence. Lord Avebury has introduced a Private Member's Bill along the lines of last year's thwarted proposals from the Home Secretary; they were dropped, to widespread comment, to secure the passage of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act through Parliament.

 

But less well-known is that the laws already in force could have far bigger impact than expected. The Act created a category of "religiously aggravated" offences that have been in effect since December 14. These offences are likely to have wide-ranging implications and, if misused, could cause serious harm to community relations and insidiously limit freedom of the press and of debate.

 

The Act's Section s39(5) defines "religious group" as a group of persons "defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief". This is an extraordinarily wide-ranging definition that covers atheists as well as believers, pagans and the Sons of the Second Coming of Elvis as well as mainstream religions. It is also a self-defining definition and, in essence, anyone who says he has a particular religion is entitled to demand that it be protected, even if nobody else has ever heard of it.

Private individuals can bring prosecutions for the new offences as well as the police and Crown Prosecution Service. One of the offences is "religiously aggravated harassment" and, since harassment is a tort as well as a crime, it means that individuals or religious groups can also bring claims for damages or injunctions alleging religious harassment.

 

The Government does not have a particularly good record in anticipating the use of harassment legislation. When the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was introduced to deal with stalking, only 200 cases a year were expected. But the latest Home Office figures show more than 6,000 cases a year. The Act has also been used in cases having nothing whatsoever to do with stalking and involving former partners, demonstrators and newspapers. The Sun is being sued under the Protection from Harassment Act over articles it published (Thomas v News Group Newspapers, Times Law Report July 25, 2001) and, regardless of the rights or wrongs of that particular case, it is certainly a far cry from the original motivation and justification behind the Protection from Harassment Act.

 

Now that religiously aggravated harassment exists, any newspaper that runs a series of articles on any religious cult could find itself prosecuted or sued, as could the journalists and anyone else involved. Political correctness, and the desire to "play safe", would have a field day.

 

Part of the definition of harassment is causing distress which is a far wider definition than the old blasphemy law and is far easier to prove. Under harassment case law it is possible to cause someone distress even when there is no intent to do so, when they are not an intended victim and have merely been told by a third party about something said or done that they find "distressing".

 

On that basis, saying to a fellow, non-Muslim worker that you find Islamic headscarves ugly could constitute religiously aggravated harassment if the words are repeated to a Muslim. A bookseller who displayed a copy of The Satanic Verses and refused to remove it if asked could be accused of a religiously aggravated offence. People who are visited by Jehovah's Witnesses should be careful how they ask them to leave and journalists should perhaps be cautious about using the phrase "Islamic terrorist" in future.

 

Even the quoting of religious scriptures or preaching could, in certain circumstances, be alleged to cause "distress". For example, in the Book of Mormon 1 Nephi 13 5-6 the Roman Catholic Church is described as the "great and abominable church, most abominable above all other churches". Could Mormon missionaries find themselves accused of harassing Catholics? Does Sura 19.88 of the Koran "those who teach 'the lord of mercy has begotten a son' preach a monstrous falsehood" - cause distress to Christians for whom the divinity of Christ is an article of faith?

 

These examples may seem far-fetched. But experience shows that when a law exists it is used in ways that were never foreseen. As with any law, often the threat is more effective than the reality. Most people prefer to "play safe" and if threatened with the law may back down, even if in reality they would probably win any case. So, insidiously, the creation of the crime of religiously aggravated harassment may inhibit behaviour and free speech in a way the Government has not anticipated, but, as Monty Python so memorably put it, "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition". Enjoy that joke with care. It may already be illegal

 

DEVIL'S IN THE DETAIL

(An Article by and Neil Addison published in The Police Review 12th April 2002)

 

When the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill was introduced in December last year one of its most controversial proposals was to extend the law on Incitement to Racial Hatred to cover incitement to Religious Hatred. Because of opposition in the House of Lords that particular proposal was dropped. However section 39 of the Act did create a new category of "Religiously Aggravated Offences" which came into force on December 14th. They could provide the potential for some controversial prosecutions.

 

The new offences are based on the "Racially Aggravated Offences" of Assault, Criminal Damage, Public Order and Harassment created by section 28 of the Crime and Disorder Act. These have now become "Racially and Religiously Aggravated Offences" and take effect where " at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim's membership (or presumed membership) of a racial or religious group; or the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial or religious group based on their membership of that group.

 

Under s28(5) "religious group" means a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief." which is potentially an extremely wide ranging definition which could extend to Satanists, Pagans, Witches and believers in the second coming of Elvis !

 

One of the aspects of the definition which is not immediately apparent is the fact that a religious group can be defined by a "lack of religious belief". In one sense this means that atheists are a form of religious group but it also means that in relation to any religion absolutely everyone who is not part of that religion forms a separate religious group. For example if a particular group of religious extremists decided to attack anyone who did not share their particular religious belief then all their offences would be religiously aggravated even though they were directed at people with numerous religious beliefs. In present circumstances this could be a potentially important aspect of the legislation.

 

As with the racially aggravated offences membership of a religious group includes association with members of that group. For example if a Hindu girl was attacked by other Hindus because she was going out with a Muslim boy then that would be a religiously aggravated offence even though the victim and her attackers were all members of the same religion.

 

One of the main reasons for the creation of the new category of offences was because of complaints by Muslim groups who considered that the previous racially aggravated offences were unfair because Sikhs and Jews are regarded as racial as well as religious groups but Muslims are not. This could mean that if there was a fight between a group of Sikh and Muslim youths the Muslims faced the prospect of being charged with racially aggravated offences whilst the Sikhs could only be charged with the ordinary offences. If such a situation happened now then both groups can equally be charged with the appropriate religiously aggravated offences. Similarly Graffiti on a Mosque or damage to Christian graves could now constitute religiously aggravated Criminal Damage offences. With religiously or racially aggravated criminal damage offences the defendants can go, or be sent, to the Crown Court regardless of the value of the damage and sentences can be significantly higher than for "ordinary" criminal damage.

 

An important aspect of sensible policing of the new offences will be for officers not to get too carried away and charge a religiously aggravated offence merely because some of the evidence involves religious references. For example I had a (civil) client from Latin America who was stalked and sexually harassed by a man who amongst other things referred to her as a "stupid catholic". There are frequent marital breakups where one party will blame the others religious sexual inhibitions for the break up. In both those types of cases charging religious rather than "ordinary" harassment or assault would overemphasise one, relatively small, aspect of the evidence and perhaps run the risk of losing the entire case

 

In practice some of the most difficult policing decisions may arise in cases involving religiously aggravated harassment or section 5 Public Order Act offences. This is because the offender may state that the alleged harassment is merely them expressing their personal view on a particular religion. Is someone who holds up a Placard saying "the pope is the anti-christ" guilty of religious harassment or merely expressing a legitimate religious point of view ? Before too long a court somewhere is going to be faced with that question and, appropriately enough, God Knows what the answer will be

 

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