The controversial hate crime bill – Update

So the controversial hate crime bill has been approved.

There have been several concessions throughout the process to the huge concerns about free speech.

“Intent” is now required in accusations of “stirring up hatred.” Criminal threshold will require the validation of a “reasonable person,” and now after pressure from secular campaign groups and others, religion and belief are no longer to be cushioned from “expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult.”

The political fallout of this bill is yet to be seen and while we may all have personal opinions on the nature of “protected characteristics” and the extent to which different groups still have battles to fight, we must celebrate as secular campaigners that we got pretty much what we wanted as far as religious belief is concerned.

While the bill’s wording on religion is still slightly less robust than similar free speech protection in England and Wales, we can rejoice that Life of Brian is back on the viewing menu.

Hate Crime Bill – Concerns

Edinburgh Secular Society in conjunction with The National Secular Society has for some time now led the concern of many groups about the overzealous new Hate Crime Bill proposed by The Scottish Government.

The bill would make it a criminal offence for speech to “stir up hatred” against a variety of protected characteristics including religious belief, or indeed for it to be “likely to stir up hatred.”

Chill Free Speech

It is this bypassing of intent which has raised eyebrows through Scotland as it would chill free speech here more than anywhere else in the UK.
Humza Yousef, The Justice Secretary, in dealing with concerns about intent, is now saying that intent would need to be proved in court.

To discuss these issues Neil Barber ESS Communications Officer represented The National Secular Society and gave evidence to The Parliament on a panel comprised of representatives all of Scotland’s major religions.

He made the following points.

• Neil told the Committee that The Justice Secretary’s decision to revise the legislation in light of concerns to limit the stirring up hatred offences to ‘intent’ was “a step in the right direction” but “would provide no comfort to writers who might find themselves anticipating stressful and expensive investigations and court cases.”

• He warned the vagueness of the wording of the bill, particularly regarding ‘abuse’ would lead to vexatious accusations of ‘stirring up hatred” and how that ambiguity would be the very nuance on which ambitious legal sophistry would seek to turn.

• He urged the Committee to build in more robust freedom of expression provisions to protect “expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices” as is the case in England and not simply the polite “discussion and criticism” proposed to be allowed in Scotland.

.• When asked by the Committee to suggest alternatives to legislation to combat hate and intolerance, Neil pointed out that it was a gross exercise in bolting the stable door to criminalise silly laddies for hate speech on football terraces when they had just spent 16 years in “them and us” faith schools.

• The session ended with all contributing faith, belief and secularist groups expressing universal support for abolition of the blasphemy law.

Interestingly all of the Christian groups shared our concerns.
It seemed they were as worried about being criminalised for their well-known views on gay and trans equality as we are for our views on religious ideas and privilege. Strikingly however, the Muslim and Jewish reps were eager supporters of the bill and hoped for as much new hate speech legislation as possible. We must reflect on that.

Much of this debate stems from the welcome abolition of Scotland’s anachronistic blasphemy law: no ideas are beyond scrutiny.
It must not be replaced by another set of laws which will reach far into an unknowable future and have serious implications for free speech.

Here is the link to a recording of the meeting.
There are two meetings. Both are worth watching but the religious one starts at about 10:50. Neil contributes to answering the questions throughout the discussion but makes his opening comments at 11:21:30

Here is how The NSS reported the meeting:

ESS call for the City of Edinburgh to clarify the status of Mortonhall Crematorium

Lately (July 2018) the Society has called for the City of Edinburgh to clarify the status of Mortonhall Crematorium. Despite the looming presence of a cross on the end wall of each chapel, the Crematorium’s website makes no declaration that it is a Christian building, dedicated only to Christian funerals. However, the Wikipedia website declares that it is ‘multi-denominational’. This description appears to derive from the brief the architects, Spence, Glover and Ferguson, were given by the City in 1960.

It is not clear if the City intended this term to cover all religions, but in fact it can only cover all Christian denominations (sects). It would exclude all other religions and of course those of no religion. If the City intended the term to imply that the building was to be secular or non-religious, that was a mistake.

ESS wants the Crematorium to be declared a secular building, open to all, regardless of religion. Consequently we have called for the crosses to be removed from the chapels and the Crematorium website changed.

The main chapel showing the cross.

Almost three-quarters of Scots are “not religious”


Responding to new figures which show that almost three-quarter of Scots are “not religious” the Catholic Church has rather desperately claimed that “not religious” doesn’t mean “no religion.” If religiosity is not a binary yes/no position then it is equally true that those who tick the Christian box for cultural reasons are in no real sense practicing /believing Christians. I still have my granny’s rosary beads but that doesn’t mean that an increasingly minority religious belief system should  continue to have privileged access to government and schools.

Neil Barber – Edinburgh Secular Society – Edinburgh Evening News – 21 September 2017

Abolish blasphemy law

With the absurd police investigation in Ireland over Stephen Fry’s so-called “blasphemy” on The Meaning of Life TV programme, a show designed to air exactly such debate, it seems that The New Zealand Parliament is moving to remove its own version of this atavistic legislation.
“Blasphemy” is still a common law offence in Scotland.
While the law must protect religious individuals from harm and persecution that doesn’t extent to protecting religious ideas from scrutiny or criticism. Could it be that government’s resistance finally to abolishing this nonsense derives from a fear that any sort of attack on religious privilege is a block vote loser ?

Neil Barber– Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society
Published The Scotsman Friday 12 May – 2017 – The Scotsman

Facebook’s blasphemy” discussion in Pakistan

We were horrified to learn that Facebook is to send a team to Pakistan to discuss its government’s determination that “blasphemy” (with its associated death sentence) should be censored on social media.

In distinguishing between hate speech and so-called “blasphemy” let us hope that these talks take heed of the words of British Muslim commentator Maajid Nawaz who has said of this issue that, “No person is beneath dignity but no idea is above scrutiny.”

Neil Barber– Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published The Scotsman Friday 21 March – 2017 – The Scotsman.

Claused Minds

Its back to the drawing board for The Church of England after its latest Bishops’ report on homosexuality failed to win a majority approval from The General Synod.

Seems that the report suggested slight tweaks to the degree of politeness which LGBT Christians should expect but no change in its opposition to marriage equality : essentially that Gay people are not unequal, they just shouldn’t have access to the institutions of equality.

We welcome that The C of E are inching their way towards decency and modernity though as secular campaigners, do we have a right to intrude on private grief?

The problem is that as England’s “national” church, it’s not private. This is a minority Christian group who are exempt from equality legislation yet have access to schools and un-elected voices in government.

They should be disestablished so they can take all the time they need to sort out their anachronistic internal schisms.

Neil Barber– Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published The Scotsman Friday 17 February – 2017 The Scotsman

Letter also published in the Edinburgh News on the same date –  headed ‘Cof E needs to sort out its stance on equality’.


Remove crosses from Mortonhall Crematorium

I hope that the City of Edinburgh Council will take the opportunity 
another two months of repairs offers (Your report 14 January) to remove 
the crosses that loom over both chapels (they need to be covered with a 
curtain for non-religious funerals).
    The Crematorium is a secular building and should not appear to be 
supporting one particular religious faith--Christianity. Only a minority 
are now Christians and most Scots have no religion. That should be 
reflected in the appearance of the chapels.

Steuart Campbell – Secretary – Edinburgh Secular Society
Published Edinburgh Evening News 18 January 2017


Secular prayer

This week will see the Church of Norway become officially disestablished.

Coat of arms of the Church of Norway

Coat of arms of the Church of Norway

Norwegians are now free to choose any religion or none but will no longer have their philosophic views assumed for them by the state. Scotland and England continue to be in a tiny minority of European countries where one branch of one minority religion is named the “national church.”

Let us hope that in 2017 religious leaders will continue to guide their own followers but take a lead in graciously and voluntarily surrendering these unrepresentative privileges.

The mixing of religion and politics causes some of the worst problems in the world. Combating that begins at home.


Neil Barber – Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published The Scotsman The Herald and Edinburgh News – 30 January 2017

Not-so uniform

Seems that the option to wear the hijab as part of the official uniform of Police Scotland is being adopted by a small number of Muslim officers. There is already provision made for Sikh turbans.
While we all support inclusivity and representation and applaud the commitment of those who wish to join the force, questions arise about religious neutrality in how our police are perceived.
Which other groups might now wish similarly to customise the state uniform ?

Neil Barber – Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published The Scotsman newspaper 30 December 2016

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