Seventh-day Adventist church leaders in the United Kingdom—and others—are concerned about a proposed “religious hatred” legislation called for July 7 by David Blunkett, the British Home Secretary.
“We also need to acknowledge the risk that extremists of every kind—whether political or religious—will try to use this sense of insecurity to promote their objectives. That is what they want: to play on people’s legitimate fears to create division and destroy the mutuality on which our society depends,” Blunkett said in remarks at the Institute of Public Policy Research.
Britain’s Labor Party Government will seek legislation defining “an offense of incitement to religious hatred as soon as possible to help tackle extremists who use religion to stir up hatred in our society,” according to an announcement from Blunkett’s press office.
Responding to the proposed move—which has drawn criticism from local Muslim and evangelical Christian leaders, among others—Pastor Cecil Perry, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Britain and head of its Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, said care has to be taken to avoid criminalizing the free expression of deeply held religious convictions. He said that under the rubric of preventing terrorism, a government could try to clamp down on free speech.
“Since the available evidence in the government’s possession attributes this fear of terror to religious extremists and fundamentalists,” Perry said, “it follows that any comprehensive measures contemplated to contain this threat would involve a scrutiny of religious associations. However, where laws already exist to cover such offenses as racial, religious discrimination and criminal damage, targeting a religious group through separate legislation could be seen as breaching religious liberty and individual civil rights.”
Perry added, “Uncomfortable biblical doctrinal pronouncements could be limited by such legislation and the actions of different faith groups could be misinterpreted in such a way as to bring them under the law.”
Imagining a worst-case scenario, he continued, “The growing concern by many about the Home Secretary’s intended legislation to curb the speech and actions of certain religious groups is the restricting of the civil and religious rights of all. With such legislation in place the government could, at least in theory, exercise the right to curb all religious practices whether or not they endanger the public good and threaten law and order.”
Such concerns have found fruition, recently, in other parts of the world. On April 29, Canada enacted Bill C-250, which adds the disparaging of “sexual orientation” to a list of “hate crimes” for which perpetrators can be charged with an “indictable offense,” equal to a felony in the United States. (See ANN, May 4, 2004.)
Under the law, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said sexual orientation is added to the prohibited grounds for “advocating genocide,” or promoting genocide; “public incitement of hatred,” which is defined as communicating statements in a public place that incite hatred; and the “willful promotion of hatred,” which the Canadian law defines as communicating statements, other than in private conversation, that willfully promote hatred against any identifiable group.
As a result, Adventist pastors in Canada, along with their evangelical Christian peers and other ministers, are concerned that proclaiming the Bible’s clear view on sexual conduct could bring serious criminal charges, since churches are “public places” under Canadian law. A similar crackdown against “religious extremism” in Britain could create equal dangers for those who advocate Bible-based values and prophetic interpretation, Perry suggested.
“It is possible that a church’s entire worldview and belief system could fall foul of emergency legislation such as that being contemplated to prevent incitement against religious hatred,” Perry said.
“Where emergency measures of a limited duration are necessary, permanent laws are not desirable,” Perry added. “People in the shortterm will tolerate restriction of their civil rights for the public good but not a long-term denial of their God-given rights to free speech and power of choice. There are inherent dangers when civil governments begin to interfere with religion especially when the right to worship legitimately is infringed.”
Dr. John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association, also said the Blunkett proposal has its dangers.
“Before imposing legislation I believe that the government should encourage religious leaders to adopt a code of good conduct,” he told ANN. “Using the term ‘religious’ is already giving the impression that religion and some specific religions produce hate crime. Religious minorities, which are already the victims of prejudice, may have to face a strong pressure to neutralize their right to contest [restrictions on their] costumes and traditions.”