Scottish bishop urges change to hate crime law to protect religious believers

Scottish bishop urges change to hate crime law to protect religious believers

In a file photo, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during an event 'Scotland's European Future after Brexit' at the European Policy Center in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

Scotland’s government should heed Pope Francis’s call to “foster encounter and to seek convergence on at least some issues” as it debates hate crime legislation, according to Bishop Jopseph Toal of Motherwell.

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Scotland’s government should heed Pope Francis’s call to “foster encounter and to seek convergence on at least some issues” as it debates hate crime legislation, according to Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell.

The proposed Hate Crime and Public Order Bill in Scotland aims to modernize, consolidate, and expand hate crime legislation in Scotland.

The bill introduces a new offence of stirring up hatred, possession of inflammatory material, and new protection of freedom of expression provisions in relation to religion and sexual orientation.

In July, the Scottish bishops claimed that the proposed threshold for an offence might be considered “disproportionately low.”

They also expressed concern that the prohibition against possessing inflammatory material “could render material such as the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other texts such as Bishops’ Conference of Scotland submissions to government consultations, as being inflammatory under the new provision.”

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Writing in the Oct. 13 edition of Herald, a Scottish Catholic newspaper, Toal said the Scottish government could take a lesson from the pope’s new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.

“In the document, the Pope encourages us all to find bonds that will unite us in solidarity, fraternity and support for one another, especially as we face the continuing rigors and dangers of the pandemic,” the bishop says. “He affirms the simple truth that we are brothers and sisters, living in a common home and sharing a common humanity and reminds us that dialogue should be respectful and strive for consensus, which leads to a culture of encounter.”

Toal says political leaders should heed the pope’s call for politicians to “tend to the needs of individuals,” noting that this statement “could be addressed to our own Scottish Government.”

“He [Francis} adds; ‘They are called to make sacrifices that foster encounter and to seek convergence on at least some issues.’ I hope the government will continue to do exactly that by listening to concerns raised by many about a piece of proposed legislation,” the bishop said.

“Scotland’s Justice Secretary recently confirmed that the Government will amend the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill raising the criminal threshold of the controversial stirring up offences from a ‘likelihood’ to stir up hatred to ‘intent’ to stir up hatred. The low threshold was heavily criticized when the bill was first published, and the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland welcome the government’s decision to remove it. It is a step in the right direction towards addressing serious concerns around free speech,” the bishop wrote.

“In the hope that we will remain a country, where constructive dialogue flourishes, the Catholic Church will continue to argue for further change to this legislation to include; more equitable and robust freedom of expression provisions; greater clarity around the definitions of ‘hatred’, ‘abusive’ and ‘insulting’ which remain precariously vague and urge consideration be given to appropriate defenses which reflect the change to intent only,” he continued.

Toal said that in Fratelli Tutti, Francis invites us to build a culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions.

“Ultimately, we can only truly respect other people’s point of view if we first allow them to express it,” the bishop said.

“I hope the Scottish Government will address the outstanding concerns of many, that religious texts, books and social media messages expressing certain views could be considered ‘abusive’ under the proposed law and act to protect freedom of expression and people’s right to be themselves and to be different,” Toal concluded. “In doing so they would promote what the pope describes as a ‘cultural covenant,’ one that respects and acknowledges the different worldviews, cultures and lifestyles that coexist in our society.”

In figures released in June, Scotland saw an increase of 4 percent of hate crimes this year, with most of them based on race, although sexual orientation was the second most cited cause.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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