Scotland’s Catholic bishops have raised concerns that possessing the Bible could become an offence under proposed new hate crime legislation.
The Catholic Church has become the latest organisation to raise its concerns about controversial reforms in the Scottish Government’s new Hate Crime Bill.
It has made a submission to MSPs on Holyrood’s Justice Committee, who have been tasked with scrutinising the reforms.
The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland said: “Any new law must be carefully weighed against fundamental freedoms, such as the right to free speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
With section five of the legislation creating an offence of possessing inflammatory material, they fear the “low threshold” in the proposed new laws “could render material such as the Bible … as being inflammatory under the new provision”.
The new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill will, if passed, also create an offence of “stirring up hatred” against a protected group, expanding on existing laws protecting racial groups.
The bishops warned “how hatred is defined is not clear which leaves it open to wide interpretation” – adding this “could lead to vexatious claims having to be dealt with by police”.
In their submission they also stressed “criminalising conduct is a serious step that should not be taken lightly”.
They argued rights to freedom of expression “must be robust enough to protect the freedom to disagree”.
The bishops highlighted their belief – published in response to the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms of gender recognition – that a person’s sex and gender are “not fluid and changeable”.
They said “without an appropriate freedom of expression provision” such views, “which are widely held, would not be protected”.
Anthony Horan, director of the Catholic parliamentary office, said: “Whilst acknowledging that stirring up of hatred is morally wrong and supporting moves to discourage and condemn such behaviour, the bishops have expressed concerns about the lack of clarity around definitions and a potentially low threshold for committing an offence, which they fear, could lead to a ‘deluge of vexatious claims’.
“A new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church … inflammatory.
“The Catholic Church’s understanding of the human person, including the belief that sex and gender are not fluid and changeable, could fall foul of the new law.
“Allowing for respectful debate means avoiding censorship and accepting the divergent views and multitude of arguments inhabiting society.”
He added: “The bishops decry so-called ‘cancel culture’ in their submission, expressing deep concern at the ‘hunting down of those who disagree with prominent orthodoxies with the intention to expunge the non-compliant from public discourse and with callous disregard for their livelihoods’.
“They say that ‘no single section of society has dominion over acceptable and unacceptable speech or expression’ and urged the law to be proportionate and fair and allow for respectful debate and tolerance lest we become an ‘intolerant, illiberal society’.”
Its submission comes after The Law Society of Scotland said it had “significant reservations regarding a number of the Bill’s provisions and the lack of clarity”.
The Scottish Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, claimed the Bill – which has also come under fire from opposition politicians – “appears to paralyse freedom of speech in Scotland”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Religious beliefs are an integral part of Scottish society and this Bill does not change that in any way.
“The Bill does not criminalise religious beliefs or practices and possessing a Bible would not constitute an offence.
“The Bill includes provisions on freedom of expression to provide reassurance that the prohibition on stirring up hatred will not limit people’s right to express their faith.
“No one can commit a stirring up of religious hatred offence unless they act in a threatening or abusive manner or communicate threatening or abusive material that is intended to stir up hatred or likely to stir up hatred.”