LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Hate crime legislation in Scotland must allow “for robust debate and exchange of views,” says the local Catholic Church.

In a consultation on Scotland’s hate crime legislation, the Scottish Catholic Church said that the definition of ‘hate’ has become open to misuse, raising fears that expressing traditional Catholic views on marriage and sexuality could be viewed as illegal.

“Care must be taken to allow room for debate and a robust exchange of views, ensuring that ‘hate’ doesn’t include the kind of ordinary discourse where people reasonably hold divergent views. The fundamental right to freedom of expression, and the right of an individual to hold and express opinions, even if they are considered by some to be controversial or unwelcome must be upheld,” the submission said.

According to Police Scotland, a hate crime is “any crime motivated by malice or ill will towards a social group by race, sexual orientation, religion/faith, [and] disability transgender/gender identity.”

The government consultation comes after the publication of an independent review of hate crime legislation in Scotland was published last May. The review — headed by retired judge Alastair Campbell, Lord Bracadale – made several recommendations, including adding age discrimination and gender hostility to the provisions of the hate crime legislation.

The review said it was not necessary “to create any new offence or statutory aggravation to tackle hostility towards a sectarian identity (insofar as that is different from hostility towards a religious or racial group) at this stage.”

Sectarianism is based more on religious identity than religious belief and has been in the news recently after a series of anti-Catholic incidents in Scotland. Many of these reflect the tensions in Northern Ireland, and is reflected in the rivalry between the Glasgow soccer teams Celtic, supported by Catholics, and Rangers, supported by Protestants.

Campbell also called for a “protection of freedom of expression provision” in any new hate crime legislation.

The current consultation has been called by the government to respond to the independent review and ensure that hate crime legislation is “fit for 21st century Scotland,” and despite the conclusion of the independent review, the government is strongly considering a new anti-sectarianism law.

The government will publish its analysis of the consultation in the summer, and then present its new Hate Crime Bill.

The Catholic Parliamentary Office Director, Anthony Horan, said the Catholic Church in Scotland supported Cambell’s recommendation that there should be a protection of freedom of expression provision for offences concerning the stirring up of hatred.

“Supressing the right to freedom of expression, as detailed in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights will create divisions and foster grievances across society,” he said.

“In a climate of heightened sensitivity there is a very real danger that expressing or even holding individual or collective opinions or beliefs will become a hate crime. We must guard against this and ensure freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion are protected. Some people might suggest that expressing the Catholic Church’s position on marriage or human sexuality could be an attempt to stir up hatred. This would obviously be wrong, but without room for robust debate and exchange of views we risk becoming an intolerant, illiberal society,” Horan continued.

He also said the Catholic Church agrees with Campbell’s conclusion that there was no need for new legislation to add sectarianism to the list of hate crime provisions.

“Existing legislation, including existing statutory aggravations, are adequate. We would oppose any move to shift existing protections to an unnecessary sectarianism aggravation and agree with Lord Bracadale that the absence of such an aggravation would not leave a gap in the law as both race and religion statutory aggravations can be attached to any base offence if proven,” he said.

Horan said adding anti-sectarianism hate crime provisions could undermine the development of positive ecumenical relations between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland.

“The proposed aggravation assumes, wrongly, that where anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, anti-Irish or anti-British bigotry or racism occurs, those responsible are from another Christian denomination or Irish/British ethnicity,” he said.

According to statistics published last month in 2017-2018, there were 6,736 hate crimes reported in Scotland, the vast majority of them – 67 percent – were race related.

Only 7 percent were based on religion, and just 1 percent involved transgender identity.