Author Archives: Johanna

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

ESS letter: Gay cake” ruling puts spotlight on equality

After much soul searching which divided even liberals, the Christian owners of Northern Ireland bakery Ashers have lost their appeal against a ruling that their refusal to make a “gay cake” was discriminatory.


The appeal judges concluded that supplying a cake did not imply that the bakers supported the “Support Gay Marriage” message any more than they might support a sports team, and that their religious beliefs did not exempt them from equality laws.

The baker’s argument highlights a common religious sophistry : gay people are not unequal, they just shouldn’t have access to the institutions of equality.

Neil Barber – Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published Edinburgh Evening News 27th September 2016

ESS Letter: Swear it’s true.

Today, September 30th is International Blasphemy Rights Day so it is a good time to remember that blasphemy, though not prosecuted for some time, is still a common law offence in Scotland.

International Blasphemy Rights Day

International Blasphemy Rights Day

In theocratic countries where the religion is the state the first victims are often minority faiths. Only secularism which separates religion from state can be fair to everyone involved.

Individuals of whatever faith or creed are entitled to respect and protection but that in no way means that, under fear of criminal sanction their ideas are not open to challenge.

Neil Barber – Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published The Scotsman 30th September 2016

ESS Letter: May’s faith school ruling is beyond belief.

We were appalled to hear that Theresa May’s UK government is soon to allow English schools run by faith groups but funded by tax payers to select ALL of their students on the basis of the religious beliefs of their parents.


Having said that it is “unacceptable” for schools to “promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background” it is twisted thinking now to facilitate exactly that.

What right do religious groups have to take tax payers’ money for this self-promotion and what mandate does the entirely un-elected Mrs May have to make such draconian changes to the English education system ?

Neil Barber – Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published Edinburgh Evening News 15th September 2016


ESS Letter : Fully inclusive religiously neutral schools.

Seems that the UK government is to spend £4.4million on LGBTI anti-bullying initiatives in schools and especially in faith schools where LGBTI-conscious education can often be the most lacking.

Here’s an idea.

What about fully inclusive religiously neutral schools for all our children?

Radical huh ?

Neil Barber – Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

ESS letter : Ozzie atheists say stop ticking Jedi in the census.

Symbol of the Jedi Order

Symbol of the Jedi Order

Seems that the ongoing joke of putting “Jedi” as a religious affiliation in a census is being campaigned against by The Atheist Foundation of Australia.

Their concerns are that the government gets a false impression of the general religiousness of its citizens which misdirects civic spending and how they allocate time slots on public radio and television.

That minority of Scottish citizens who do hold religious beliefs are quite rightly represented in a census but I wonder why people casually tick religious boxes when they have no real religious beliefs or lifestyle.

Maybe it’s through a sense of family or cultural loyalty or maybe it’s to cover their “fire insurance” as my Granny’s old joke used to go. I still keep my Granny’s rosary beads but if you don’t want religious ideas to be disproportionately represented in your name, for God’s sake tick the “none” box.

Neil Barber – Communications Officer – Edinburgh Secular Society

Published Edinburgh Evening News 24th August 2016

ESS Letter : Christian faith in public life

Anthony Horan writes on Christian faith in public life.

To his credit he acknowledges that a recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows more than half of Scots do not identify with any religion : Christianity is now a subset of a minority.

We agree that all have the “right to a voice in the public square” if it is from a platform of equality, but Mr. Horan’s argument is compromised when he says that religious ideas should be “welcomed without fear or favour.”

There is huge favour still enjoyed by religions : unelected clerics on council education committees; statutory Religious Observance in state school; bishops in The House of Lords etc.

An “overwhelming majority” of Scots may identify as “spiritual” but that does not mean they tacitly endorse the privileging of minority Christian groups.

He says “Faith and belief in a constant and ever-loving God can guide us.” Faith is a “guide” for you Mr Horan, and long may it continue to be, but as one of many voices in the public square you must get over the belief that you speak for “us.”

Published Scotsman newspaper 4th August 2016