Scotland’s controversial new hate crimes bill has been passed by a majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.
Free speech campaigners say although the bill has been improved, it still presents a real danger to freedom of expression.
When the bill was first introduced, atheists said they would use the new laws to ban parts of the Bible and silence preachers.
But secular and religious groups joined forces, forming a group called ‘Free to Disagree’ to push for changes in the legislation.
The new laws create an offence criminalising the ‘stirring up of hatred’ against certain groups.
But thanks to pressure from campaigners, the Scottish government responded by modifying the wording of the offence.
The changes mean ‘stirring up hatred’ will only be considered an offence if it is intentional.
There will also be more robust protections for religious debate, which will protect the freedom to proclaim the gospel.
And a free speech clause was added protecting discussion and criticism of matters relating to transgender identity.
Nevertheless, concerns remain, not least because the new laws reach even into private homes.
Critics ask why any government should have the power to regulate what is said in private and family life.
After the bill was passed by MSPs, the Free to Disagree group issued a statement saying, ‘Holyrood backed the Hate Crime Bill by a margin of 82 votes to 32. It’s a profoundly disappointing result.’
SNP veteran Jim Sillars said, ‘I believe that this is one of the most pernicious and dangerous pieces of legislation ever produced by any government in modern times in any part of the United Kingdom.
‘The new legislation is going to open up lots of people – who do not intend to direct hate at anyone – to find themselves being reported to the police for hate crimes.’
He added, ‘The important thing is that this bill, when it becomes an Act, will ultimately be tested in court. I believe it is very badly flawed legislation.’
The Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert said, ‘“Tackling hatred” sounds a noble cause. But rhetoric and reality are not the same thing.
‘The original bill was so broad it could have seen people prosecuted simply for explaining Christian sexual ethics.
‘The Scottish government came under unprecedented pressure and was forced to concede several key changes to its plans.
‘Yes, it would have been better to have dropped Part 2, the section on stirring up hatred, completely. But if you were one of those who took action: thank you. Free speech in Scotland is safer because of you.’