After meeting Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham, who is piloting the Bill, the Right Reverend David Arnott, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said: “The speed at which it is being rushed through means it appears to lack scrutiny and clarity. The Government is rightly asking for support from across civic Scotland, but is not giving civic Scotland much time to make sure they are happy with the content.”
Catholic Church spokesman Peter Kearney said the “truncated timescale” reinforced the need for close scrutiny. He added: “Equally, however, the timetable does suggest that urgent political attention is being given to a high-profile problem. Tackling incidents of football-related intolerance in this way will allow a wider and longer debate to take place on sectarianism and its underlying causes, without the constant distraction of football-related incidents, which statistically account for less than 15% of sectarian offences in Scotland.”
The Law Society has also urged caution.
However, the Law Society of Scotland said the Bill is being pushed through Parliament too quickly and that the resulting lack of scrutiny may create legislation that is open to successful challenge.
Bill McVicar, convener of the society's criminal law committee, said: "We understand the importance of tackling sectarianism. This is a very serious issue and one that needs both attention and action from our political leaders. However, it is because of the importance of this issue that the Scottish Government needs to allow adequate time to ensure the legislation can be properly scrutinised.
It's good that there are now some prominent naysayers in this debate.
The actual text of the proposed bill has now been published here. Looking at it, it does seem less worrying that I feared it might be. I still don't agree with the restrictions on free speech, but it looks as though it won't have much effect on criticisms of Islam. First, the part of the bill that requires physical presence is specifically limited to "in relation to a regulated football match". Second, the part that relates to communications rather than physical presence requires an element of threat to be present and includes a reasonableness defence. Either Condition A or Condition B below must be fulfilled for the act to constitute an offence.
Condition A is that—
(a) the material consists of, contains or implies a threat, or an incitement, to carry out
a seriously violent act against a person or against persons of a particular
(b) the material or the communication of it would be likely to cause a reasonable
person to suffer fear or alarm, and
(c) the person communicating the material—
(i) intends by doing so to cause fear or alarm, or
(ii) is reckless as to
Condition B is that—
(a) the material is threatening, and
(b) the person communicating it intends by doing so to stir up religious hatred.
(6) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) to show that the communication of the material was, in the particular circumstances, reasonable.
The official press release about the bill also says this:
The offence will NOT:
Stop peaceful preaching or proselytising
Restrict freedom of speech including the right to criticise or comment on religion or non-religious beliefs, even in harsh terms
Criminalise jokes and satire about religion or non-religious belief
I still wish the bill would go away but it at least seems to be not as bad as I expected.