Hate crime bill: Presbyterian Church raises free speech concern

The Presbyterian Church has said “challenges” to the “expression of faith in the public square” are becoming more common.

By Niall Deeney
Wednesday, 6th April 2022, 6:43 pm
Updated Wednesday, 6th April 2022, 7:44 pm

The church has said, in response to proposals for a new Hate Crime Bill for Northern Ireland, that free speech in a private home could also be curtailed.

The church has put its views on the Bill forward in a 2,000 word submission that highlights the need for religious freedom to be maintained.

The Bill, put forward by Justice Minister Naomi Long, proposes “stirring up hatred” against people on the basis of their race, nationality, religious belief, sexual orientation or disability, by using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or... written material” as a criminal offence.

Rev Daniel Kane. INBT 46-105JC

It also includes a recommendation, made in 2020 by a judge leading a review of hate crime legislation, to abolish ‘protected speech’ in private dwellings on issues such as race, sexual orientation, transgenderism and religion.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s submission makes four points - that the “freedom to only express ideas that are popular is no freedom at all”; he blunt instrument of the law, even as a last resort, is no substitute for the hard, and often challenging, work of transforming hearts and minds; that it would “strongly oppose the removal of protection for individuals and families to freely express their personal views within their own home.

The Church’s submission also notes: “With challenges to the expression of faith in the public square becoming more common, the ability to publicly express faith is a vital part of what it means for a society to genuinely value religious freedom.”

Rev Daniel Kane, Convenor of PCI’s Council for Public Affairs, said, “In a parable concerning a tree and the quality of its fruit, recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes a comparison with the ‘fruit’ evident in our lives stating ‘for the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.’ Transforming hearts and minds requires much more than legislative change.

“The Department of Justice is tasked with drafting legislation that strikes a careful balance that protects the vulnerable and facilitates respectful debate. In our submission we recognise that challenges to the expression of faith in the public square in particular, are becoming more common. For many Christians grounding their public conduct in the truth-claims of their faith forms is a key element of their religious commitment.”

Mr Kane continued: “Recognising this is a vital part of what it means for a society to genuinely value religious freedom. There must be space within society to express views with which others may disagree, recognising at the same time, that this works both ways and allows people to express views about religious belief with which we may disagree. This includes in the home, where people of faith use their homes as extensions of their faith and religious activity.”

The Minister of West Church, Ballymena, added: “As part of the legislative process, we look forward to responding to further stages of public consultation.”