(EXCLUSIVE TO CHALCEDON)
British Christians this month united with political conservatives, political liberals, and entertainers to block the enactment of a harsh new hate speech law. But there's already a bigger battle looming on the horizon.
On Feb. 1 the House of Commons, by a single vote, defeated the government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. What did pass was a bill drastically amended by the House of Lords to remove specific references to ‘abusive’ and ‘insulting’ behavior and most importantly the principle of recklessness in relation to actions and behavior. The amended bill, now law, criminalizes intentional incitement of religious hatred, and "threatening" words and behavior. Without these amendments, UK Christian lawyers were certain that the legislation would have significantly impacted the ability to proselytize and hamper discussion and criticism of religious beliefs of practices.
"The fight against that bill certainly made for some strange bedfellows," said Charlie Hoare, international and United Nations representative and head of International Policy for CARE (Christian Action, Research, and Education). Hoare, who was active in the lobbying campaign against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, shared his insights with Chalcedon in an exclusive interview.
"You don't often find Christians and Conservatives allied with the Left and the entertainment community," Hoare said. "But as serious as our problems were with this bill, they could be nothing compared to the problems we'd have with the Equality Bill.
"If the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill had passed, it would have become hard to criticize other theological positions. But under the new legislation pending, it'll be very difficult to criticize other lifestyles."
Why Should America Care?
Is the British government trying to abolish free speech — in the country where free speech was first enshrined as a legal right?
Hoare laughed. "Hardly! Rather, it's part of an effort to seriously limit free speech across the European Union."
Why should Americans care whether hate speech laws are enacted in Great Britain?
Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, Concerned Women for America, has been very busy lobbying against similar legislation proposed every year in the U.S. Congress.
"Great Britain is America's founding country, and we owe much of our cultural and legal heritage to it," Knight said. "That's why we should take notice when the United Kingdom goes off the rails on something like hate crime laws. It's a bit like watching your older sister lose her mind and run off, wild-eyed, with a rolling pin, looking for clergymen. You don't want people here getting the same idea."
As hard as it was to stop the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, Hoare said, it will be even harder to stop the Equality Bill — which will dramatically increase the protection against all forms of "discrimination" on the basis of sexual orientation.
"The political Left and the entertainers won't oppose this one," he said.
Hoare described the Equality Bill as potentially "similar to the law in Sweden under which Pastor Ake Green [in 2005] was prosecuted for giving a sermon against homosexuality" [see "Swedish Pastor Faces Jail for Preaching against Homosexuality," http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=214]. The Lawyers' Christian Fellowship — whose membership includes several members of the House of Lords — says the bill has "no guarantees of proper religious protections, which means that there could be alarming problems for Churches and religious organisations. For example, a Christian bed and breakfast could be forced to allow a homosexual couple to stay, and churches could be forced to hire out their facilities to gay activists" [see www.lawcf.org].
"The forces behind the religious discrimination legislation won't go away; they'll keep trying," Hoare said. "They've been trying to restrict free speech in Britain since the 1980s.
"When hate speech laws first came up, it was Muslims objecting to 'special religious protection' for some religious groups — Christians, Sikhs and Jews — but not others. We do have anti-blasphemy laws going back to the Reformation, and at first it was thought that they might be amended. But there have been no successful prosecutions for blasphemy since 1922, and the government found they couldn't extend the blasphemy laws to protect other religious groups. So Parliament began to look again at hate speech laws."
Britons are not as free as Americans to speak their minds. Hoare offered a recent example.
"In 2003, the Bishop of Chester, in a newspaper interview said, "Some people who are primarily homosexual can reorientate themselves. I would encourage them to consider that as an option, but I would not set myself up as a medical specialist on the subject — that's in the area of psychiatric health." he recalled. "The chief of police in the County publicly denounced the bishop on the radio and said he'd 'investigate' the bishop's comments. The bishop was interviewed by the police; and although no further action was taken, the case made for a chilling effect felt by many others." [For speakers of American English, "interviewed by police" means "taken down to headquarters and questioned."]
But some Britons are freer than others, Hoare went on.
"The latest person to comment on this issue is not a Christian, but a Muslim — a leader of the UK’s Muslim community, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, on the leading public affairs program on BBC radio. Commenting on the homosexual practice this man said, "Certainly it is a practice that doesn't in terms of health, in terms of the moral issues that comes along in a society — it is, it is not acceptable."
"Did he get a visit by police? No — the police decided to take no action. So we now have a government inquiry not into why they took no action, how and when the police should investigate such ‘offences.’
"The legislation that we just defeated was the government trying to provide that sort of protection for Muslims," Hoare said. This is increasingly looking like free speech for Muslims, but not for Christians, he added.
Can the Church Survive in England?
American news audiences are used to seeing images of empty English churches and cathedrals; but appearances can be deceiving, Hoare said.
"Yes, the Church of England is running out of money, its net income these days is negative," he said. "But the church, the body of Christ, is stronger now in England than it has been throughout most of the twentieth century. And it will grow stronger as a result of the new forms of persecution."
Certainly the purpose of hate speech law, which may well be used to try to silence Christians, is not to promote the growth of the church. Nevertheless, said Hoare, the church in England — but sadly not the Church of England — is growing.
"People coming here from Africa and the Caribbean are adding great strength to the Christian community," he said. "We see churches in Africa sending missionaries to Europe now.
"The question is, Will the political leaders of European Countries allow the church to be rejuvenated? They've made it hard for African missionaries to get visas to enter Europe. How God will work with that, we'll just have to wait and see, and pray."
For his American audience, Hoare added, "Please — don't give up on Europe. I know there's a sentiment in America to write off Europe as lost to godless secularism, but I hope you can resist it.
"You Americans have a very significant role to play in Europe's future — and I don't mean just offering asylum to fleeing Christians! You have a vital part to play, and we pray you won't stop doing it."
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.