Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Protecting against religious hatred

Hand shielding a candle

The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 came into force on 1 October. The act makes it a new criminal offence to stir up hatred against persons on religious grounds.

The act could possibly impact schools and colleges if activists of one faith or another apply pressure to withdraw a book or picture or bit of the science curriculum because it criticises their religious belief or observance and therefore, they would claim, is religious hatred. It isn't.

It is important to understand that the act is about hatred of persons. It makes a clear distinction between the robust and even unpleasant discussion of beliefs and practices on the one hand and encouraging people to see each other as less than human and therefore fair game for persecution on the other.

It is also important to be clear that the act seeks to protect freedom of expression. The prohibition is purely against hatred.

For instance, the author of the 'Song of Roland' would have been found guilty of promoting hatred of 'Saracens,' but a spoof 'Which Guide to Religions' or mockery of Wicca adherents dancing round Stonehenge would not.

Similarly, the 'God Delusion' is protected by a provision which allows proselytising or persuading persons to abandon belief. A suggestion that heretics should be burned would probably have fallen foul of the law, though mockery of the Pope as the Anti-Christ and the Church of Rome as 'the Whore of Babylon' would probably not, unless it then resulted in persecution.

Finally, the prohibition extends to lack of religious belief. A suggestion that atheists should be killed falls within the prohibition.

The act covers speeches; the possession, production or dissemination of printed material; and plays and other forms of performance.

While it is not an offence to make remarks within a home, or to rehearse a play in private which infringes the prohibition, the police may seek a warrant to search for offending material if there is an intention of disseminating it.

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