The level of argument by opponents of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is quite unbelievably low. A case in point is the editorial in today’s Times.
The Bill has nothing to do with the blasphemy laws, as the Times implies. And Salman Rushdie would be no more likely find himself prosecuted for publishing The Satanic Verses than the Birmingham Rep was for staging Behzti (Sikhs as a mono-ethnic faith are already protected against incitement to hatred under Part 3 of the 1986 Public Order Act). The idea that people choose their religion but not their race ignores the obvious fact that culture (which includes religious belief) is an integral part of a minority community’s ethnic identity.
Nor is the government “proposing a law that would allow people to ridicule ideas as long as they were not religious ideas”, as the Times quotes Rowan Atkinson as saying. The new law wouldn’t ban ridicule of people on the basis of their religion any more than earlier race relations legislation criminalised ridicule of people on the basis of their ethnicity (if it did, Bernard Manning would have been locked up long ago). In both cases what is made illegal is the incitement of hatred.
The Times is, however, correct to point out that the amendment to the Bill proposed by Lords Lester, Hunt, Carey and Plant would make an “important distinction between laws against racism and those that seek to protect the religious from persecution”. Their lordships aim to introduce a new Part 3A to the Public Order Act, the result of which would be to make it much more difficult to succcessfully prosecute someone for inciting hatred against Muslims or Hindus than it is to prosecute them for inciting hatred against Jews or Sikhs. In other words, it would preserve the injustice, inequality and discrimination embodied in current race relations law which the Bill seeks to rectify.
Postscript: For another example of the ignorance demonstrated by opponents of the Bill, see Harry’s Place where we are referred to the Times editorial for “a succinct and persuasive argument against the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred legislation”!