The Scottish Bishops conference has raised concerns over the Scottish Government’s new Hate Crime Bill, which they claim could have serious implications for religious freedom.
In a submission to the Holyrood committee responsible for scrutinising the reforms, the Bishop’s Conference stated that the “low threshold” for hate crimes, as defined in the bill, could threaten freedoms of speech, religion and conscience”. The Bishops specifically name the Bible and the Catechism as materials that could be defined “as being inflammatory under the new provision”. Given that the definition of hatred in the Bill is unclear, the Bishops said, it could even render the submissions of the Bishop’s conference to the government on issues like gender identity “inflammatory”.
The Hate Crime Bill, drafted by the ruling SNP administration in Holyrood, and introduced to parliament on April 23, expands existing laws on racial hatred to create a new offence of "stirring up hatred" against protected groups. The protected categories in that act include race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
The Bill would also end the common law offence of blasphemy - which had not been prosecuted in Scotland for over 175 years. Although the Bishops support the repeal of blasphemy laws, they have raised concerns that the bill could feed “cancel culture” - something that they say is “deeply concerning”.
The Bill has come under attack from a number of other groups concerned about the impact it could have on freedom of expression, including the National Secular Society. The Scottish Police Federation has argued the bill could “paralyse freedom of speech in Scotland”, and undermine the relationship between police officers and the general public.
Scottish Labour’s justice spokesperson James Kelly MSP has pointed out that hate crime offences in England require proof of intent to prosecute - something that is not required in the Hate Crime Bill. Kelly argued that the "divergence" of the Scottish legal system here would “set an alarming legal precedent”, and potentially criminalise religious beliefs.
The Scottish Government has denied that the new legislation would harm freedom of expression, and stated that owning a Bible would not constitute an offence. A spokesperson said: “Religious beliefs are an integral part of Scottish society and this Bill does not change that in any way.”