Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006
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It was originally slated to be passed as part of one of the Terrorism Acts, but was delayed due to the House of Lords repeatedly rejecting the provision. It passed immediately following the 2005 elections.
While the bill was being debated within Parliament, it was roundly criticised without. Comedians, including Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, along with the writers' organisation English PEN, expressed concerns that the bill could be used as a vehicle to censor edgy comedy and other disagreeable writings, while the National Secular Society slammed it as an extension of the old blasphemy laws to cover blasphemy against any religion.
Intent of the law
As the name of the bill implies, the actual intent of the law was not to prevent "incitement to religious hatred", but to close a loophole in the country's racial hatred laws. A few years before, Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, had been arrested for incitement to racial hatred for calling Islam a "wicked vicious faith". But he of course had the unshakable defence that Islam, being a religion, could be criticised without breaking these laws.
At that time, due to the 7 July 2005 suicide attacks in London, the British government was undertaking a comprehensive study of how the State could take action against far-right politics, and closing this loophole seemed an attractive option. Thus, they lent their support to a cause that many Islamist groups in the UK, as well as Abdullah Gül (later to be president of Turkey), were already advocating as an anti-blasphemy measure; government officials understood these groups to represent most Muslims in the UK. When Griffin was acquitted of the racial hatred charge, the movement to pass the bill gained even more impetus.
Evenness of application
Since the law has been passed, many complaints have been raised against the uneven manner in which it seems to be applied. To start with, it gives little protection to atheism, although there was talk of using it to put a halt to the Atheist bus campaign.
When a Bible was defaced as part of an art exhibition in support of gay rights, there was such a furore that the Glasgow arts council, which had supported the project, agreed to a review of its procedures to ensure that such "offensive" displays would never be made again. However, the law was not applied against the artists.
By contrast, there have been some complaints that many Islamic fundamentalists violate this law with impunity by preaching hatred of non-Muslims from pulpits and in the streets, such as during the controversy over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons.
In September 2009, a couple of hoteliers, Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, were questioned by the police about an alleged violation of the act. The facts at issue were whether or not Mr Vogelenzang called Muhammad a "warlord" or Mrs Vogelenzang characterised the Muslim veil as oppressive to women. In the wake of the charges, the hoteliers were forced to sell the hotel, which was threatened with bankruptcy. The case was dismissed on 9 December 2009, although the financial damage to the business at the hotel was not made good.
Qu'ran burning case
On 23 September 2010, six men were arrested in Gateshead, Tyne, and Wear, on suspicion of burning the Qu'ran, after a video of the burning was posted to YouTube. The arrestees, five of whom at the time of arrest were members of the far-right English Defence League, expected to be charged under this law. The arrests drew criticism from PZ Myers, who considered the authorities to be "pandering cowards to the demands of religion", as well as William Dove of the International Business Times, who stated that the police's efforts would be better spent on reducing violent crime rather than "trawling YouTube for ignorant videos by political criminals". The investigation was eventually canceled in January 2011 because of insufficient evidence.
- Atheist Bus Campaign is 'offensive', say complaints to ASA
- Outrage at Bible defacing art exhibit sparks review
- Christian hoteliers charged with insulting Muslim guest: A Christian couple who run a hotel have been charged with a criminal offence for allegedly insulting a female Muslim guest about her beliefs. by Jonathan Wynne-Jones (9:30PM BST 19 Sep 2009) The Telegraph (archived from September 23, 2009).
- 'Koran burning': men expect to be charged with inciting racial hatred: A gang of six men arrested on suspicion burning copies of the Koran on YouTube said yesterday that they expected to be charged with stirring racial hatred. by Nigel Bunyan and Heidi Blake (6:47AM BST 24 Sep 2010) The Telegraph (archived from September 26, 2010).
- BBC: No prosecution over Gateshead car park Koran burning