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Our Religious Freedom: Scottish government replacing one blasphemy law with another?


4 September 2018

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which currently runs the Scottish government, has decided to abolish Scotland’s ancient blasphemy law. That law, a section (XX:4) of the Confession of Faith Ratification Act passed by the Scottish parliament in 1690, only protected the beliefs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which was the dominant belief system in eighteenth-century Scotland. It has not been used since 1843. Nonetheless, five months ago the SNP’s ruling Council passed a motion stating:

“Council believes that such a move will strengthen Scotland’s capacity to speak out against human rights abuses under the guise of blasphemy and heresy elsewhere in the world, as well as removing once and for all the possibility that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service could prosecute on such grounds here.”

Hate Crime: Scotland’s new blasphemy law

Abolishing blasphemy laws is widely regarded as marking an improvement in human rights, specifically in relation to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and academic freedom. However, at the same time the Scottish government has been keen to abolish its Christian blasphemy law, it has allowed, what is in effect, a new blasphemy law to develop, which has led to multiple arrests of those criticising politically correct beliefs in twenty-first-century Scotland.

For several years now, Christian street preachers in Scotland have been targeted using hate crime laws by activists seeking to silence them by deliberately asking questions about Christian teaching on Islam or sexual ethics. When the preachers explain what the Bible says, no matter how respectfully, the activists make a police complaint, leading to the preachers being arrested.

Josh Williamson, pastor of Craigie Reformed Baptist Church in Perth, was arrested by police while preaching on the street

In January last year, Kilmarnock Sheriff Court took just minutes to dismiss all charges against street preacher Gordon Lamour after two men had accosted him in this manner. Not only are Police Scotland now treating respectful expression of disagreement with LGBT beliefs as a “hate crime”, they are also arresting entirely peaceful street preachers simply because a complaint is made – without even checking to see if there is any evidence to support that complaint. For example, anyone who watches this video of the arrest of Rev. Josh Williamson, pastor of Craigie Reformed Baptist Church in Perth, will struggle to see what he has said that is either illegal or even offensive – other than that people will always disagree with the Christian message. There have been other similar instances in Scotland where preachers have been arrested this way, with all charges quietly dropped months later.

This is a serious matter, and if the Scottish government are genuinely concerned to set an example to the world by ensuring there is no possibility of anyone ever being arrested for blasphemy they should take urgent action to stop it.

Ignoring the issue: The Scottish government’s review of hate crime law

In fact, only a matter of days after national press coverage of the Kilmarnock court dismissing preacher Gordon Lamour’s case, Annabelle Ewing, Scotland’s Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs announced an independent review of hate crime laws. The review is to be conducted by a retired judge, Lord Bracdale. However, the terms of reference set did NOT include whether existing hate crime laws were being misused, but only whether additional categories of hate crime should be added.

The final report of that that review has just been published, alongside a public consultation on hate crime and a legal review of hate crime legislation in other countries to see what Scotland could learn from them. We have significant concerns about all three of these documents:

1. The final report focused set out a number of justifications for hate crime legislation, one of which it termed its “symbolic function”. However, it totally ignores the damage to human rights such as freedom of religion or belief and freedom of speech caused by the misuse of hate crime laws.

2. The analysis of the public consultation which formed part of the review repeatedly states that a large number of people tried to raise concerns in the consultation about freedom of religion and freedom of speech. However, these were largely discounted by the inquiry.

3. We also have concerns about the legal review of hate crime laws in other countries. Lord Bracdale’s final report states that this legal review made a “huge contribution” to the final report, “providing legal benchmarks for testing recommendations”. It is therefore extremely concerning that the review of hate crime laws in other countries does not include any evaluation of the impact of these laws on human rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  

Especially troubling is the inclusion of a major case study on the Australian State of Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. In fact, this particular law is so bad that we have highlighted it as a case study in our current Turn the Tide campaign to reclaim religious freedom in Australia. This law came into force a few months after the 9/11 attacks and was almost immediately used by the Islamic Council of Victoria to target a church seminar on Islam. Their complaint was that the two speakers had “vilified” Islam by quoting verses from the Quran about how non-Muslims should be treated.

The case was cited by Islamic organisations around the world as a landmark case in “protecting Islam” in the West from any form of adverse criticism i.e. in effect an Islamic blasphemy law. These claims highlighted the fact that the two speakers, Pakistani pastor Daniel Scot and Sri Lankan pastor Danny Nalliah, could face up to six months in prison. The ensuing court case and appeals dragged on for five years before both pastors were finally acquitted. During the case, the judge himself strongly criticised this particular law. We are therefore surprised and deeply concerned that this law is being quoted as a “benchmark” on which to base future hate speech laws in Scotland.

Scotland’s new blasphemy law in all but name

What we are seeing here is the replacement of one blasphemy law in Scotland with another. The Scottish government is keen to get rid of a law which theoretically protected a specific form of Christian belief from criticism although, in reality, its disuse for nearly two centuries means it may no longer be legally valid anyway. However, at the same time, what is, in effect, a new blasphemy law in all but name is being created by the backdoor using hate crime laws. These laws are being used by Police Scotland to arrest those who express even the most respectful disagreement with beliefs that are now part of the dominant politically correct orthodoxy, such as LGBT beliefs and Islamic beliefs. This is an issue which the Scottish government really needs to grasp, not least because laws which can be used to protect beliefs rather than people empower extremists, who threaten Christians and other minorities.

In fact, Scotland already has a problem with radical Muslims attempting to enforce an Islamic blasphemy law. In March 2016, the whole country was shocked by the murder of Asad Shah, a peace loving Ahmadiyya Muslim in Glasgow. His killer, Tanveer Ahmed, was reportedly inspired by pro-blasphemy law protests then taking place across Pakistan in support of Mumtaz Qadri, who had murdered a liberal Muslim politician because he has spoken up for Aasia Bibi a Christian accused under Pakistan’s “blasphemy” laws. At around the same time, the imam of one of Scotland’s largest mosques provoked outrage by praising Qadri’s actions in defending Islamic blasphemy laws. Then during the rest of 2016, various leaders of the pro-blasphemy law protests in Pakistan, which had also called for the immediate execution of Aasia Bibi, arrived in Scotland for preaching tours at mosques, with the latest of these being exposed by the Scottish Sunday Post only a month before the  Scottish government commissioned its hate crime review.

It is therefore a matter not merely of disappointment but of real concern that the Scottish government is focusing its energies on abolishing an ancient Christian blasphemy law which hasn’t even been used for 175 years, while at the same time ignoring sustained and serious attempts to misuse hate crime laws to ban any criticism of Islam and other politically correct beliefs which, in effect, create a new Scottish blasphemy law in all but name.