Last November, Britain’s Labour government suffered its first defeat in
the House of Commons since coming to power in 1997. Last night it
happened again: MPs voted
by a majority of ten, 288 to 278, not to reverse amendments made by the
House of Lords to the government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

The bill, promised by Labour in last year’s election campaign, sought
to prohibit religious vilification. But the Lords narrowed the offence
to words that are threatening, not just “abusive or insulting,” and,
according to the BBC, “specified that proselytising, discussion,
criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious
practice would not be an offence.”

The contrast with Australia could hardly be more striking. Parliament
as a real forum for debate and decision, and freedom of speech as a
real issue!

In the Australian states that have religious vilification laws,
opposition to them has been confined mostly to the extreme right,
particularly evangelical Christian groups. With a few honourable
exceptions, the left fell in behind the party line. But in Britain the
amendments were backed by a broad coalition of free speech advocates,
including a demonstration led by comedian Rowan Atkinson.

Defenders of free speech included both the religious and the anti-religious. Polly Toynbee spoke for the latter in The Guardian:

Already there is a frosty caution about disrespect towards
religion: it causes a more shocking frisson than it did five years ago.
Abuse of religious beliefs feels like a personal insult, the religious
want it silenced and they are winning. How long before no MP dare call
themselves an atheist?

Although most attention will be given to the Labour Party rebels, it is
important to remember that (as with the anti-terrorism laws) they could
never have won without the solid support of the Conservatives and
Liberal Democrats. Contrast again with the spinelessness of our Liberal
Party: Victoria’s racial and religious vilification law was passed in 2001 through a Liberal-controlled Legislative Council.

Peter Fray

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