Could owning a Bible become a potential criminal offence? That’s the extraordinary question Church officials in Scotland are asking themselves as the country’s parliament debates a widely-criticised hate crime bill.
The Scottish National Party government wants to criminalise behaving in a “threatening, abusive or insulting manner” or communicating “threatening, abusive or insulting material” that either intends to stir up hatred against a protected group or is “likely” to cause hatred. Possessing inflammatory material could also become a crime.
Anthony Horan, director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office, believes the legislation could “render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church inflammatory” since their content differs widely from fashionable moral opinion.
“The Catholic Church’s understanding of the human person, including the belief that sex and gender are not fluid and changeable, could potentially fall foul of the new law,” he said.
“Allowing for respectful debate should mean avoiding censorship and accepting the divergent views and multitude of arguments inhabiting society.”
“The bishops have declared that freedom of expression provisions must be robust enough to protect everyone’s freedom to disagree,” he added.
Groups as diverse as the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute, along with actors, writers and comedians have also expressed concerns. An open letter signed by actors Rowan Atkinson and Elaine C Smith and crime writer Val McDermid said the bill risks “stifling freedom of expression, and the ability to articulate or criticise religious and other beliefs”.
“As currently worded, the bill could frustrate rational debate and discussion which has a fundamental role in society including in artistic endeavour,” the letter adds. “The arts play a key part in shaping Scotland’s identity in addition to being a significant economic contributor.”
There are even fears the bill could affect the famous Edinburgh Festival. “How many stand-up comedians will feel comfortable telling any jokes if this law is passed?” asked Roddy Dunlop QC, vice-dean of Scotland’s Faculty of Advocates. “People could complain that the joke discriminates against Scottish people’s national identity. We worry it will be too wide and too much of a curb on freedom of expression.”
Despite the growing concerns, there is no sign the Scottish government will relent. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf played down fears after it was pointed out that author JK Rowling could be prosecuted for voicing scepticism of trans ideology. “If you were to say a trans man is not a real man or trans woman is not a real woman, you would not be prosecuted under the bill that I am intending to bring forward, so long as you didn’t do it in a threatening or abusive way that is intended or likely to stir up hatred,” he said.
However, the justice secretary was criticised in June after apparently failing to understand his own bill. He told the Scottish Parliament that a person’s actions would have to be “abusive and threatening” to merit prosecution; yet the bill says behaviour should be “abusive or threatening” – a much lower threshold.
Opponents hope they may yet persuade the SNP government to change its mind, but with the party riding high in the polls and very little in the way of coordinated parliamentary opposition, there seems little incentive for them to do so.
While few question the good intentions behind the bill, many worry about its unintended consequences. As the Scottish journalist Alex Massie says: “I do not doubt that the bill means well; I have every doubt it will work in practice.”