Churches comment on Government incitement to hatred plans

 The Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and the Church of England have today released a memorandum to the Public Bill Committee commenting on the Government's proposed amendment to the Public Order Act 1986 to create a new offence of incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation. The Churches affirm the importance of protecting people vulnerable to attack on grounds of their sexuality or gender identity but point out that: "words, behaviour and display of written material which are intended to cause harassment, alarm or distress, or which occur in the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, are already prohibited by the ss.4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. We wonder whether these provisions are being enforced effectively and equitably in order to combat hate crimes." Looking back to last year's Racial and Religious Hatred Act, the memorandum also notes that the debate: "illustrated the need to balance protection of vulnerable groups with safeguards for freedom of expression". "Our main concern," the Churches point out, "is that any legislation on incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation permits the expression of traditional Christian (and other) opinions on sexual behaviour and consequent criticisms of particular forms of behaviour or lifestyle. As with incitement to religious hatred, we believe it is vital that there should be the maximum possible clarity about what is forbidden and what is permitted. Christians engaged in teaching or preaching and those seeking to act in accord with Christian convictions in their daily lives need to be assured that the expression of strong opinions on marriage or sexuality will not be illegal." In conclusion, the Churches suggest an exploration of safeguards bearing in mind the differences between religion and sexual orientation to: "protect expressions of opinion directed against conduct rather than against the person themselves." SOURCE: CCN

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