Believers want better legal protection
Only eleven per cent of voters in marginal constituencies think religious liberty has improved since David Cameron became Prime Minister, according to a new survey.
The ComRes poll, commissioned by The Christian Institute, found that over four in ten (44 per cent) of those surveyed support legal protections for people with “sincere, profoundly held beliefs”, like Hazelmary and Peter Bull, above, the bigoted owners of a Christian guesthouse who were ordered to pay damages for turning away a gay couple.
Only 21 per cent disagreed that:
The tide of equality legislation has gone too far in elevating equality over religious freedom.
Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute, said the results should act as a “wake up call” to party leaders, as voters in key marginal seats are:
Very concerned about threats to religious liberty and free speech. Those surveyed rightly believe that religious freedom in this country has not improved under Mr Cameron’s leadership.
This poll confirms the high levels of concern that the public have about religious freedom and free speech in the UK after four years of the Coalition Government. They feel that there has been no improvement and the only way this can be addressed is to offer people of faith and beliefs real protections. If they are to be meaningful they must be enshrined in legislation.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, unveiled plans last month for so-called Extremism Disruption Orders, which would allow judges to ban people deemed extremists from broadcasting, protesting in certain places or even posting messages on Facebook or Twitter without permission.
Both the CI and the NSS – two organisations with often diametrically opposing interests – are fearful that that this could result in people being branded as “extremists” if, for example, they criticise sharia law or gay marriage.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, has made clear in a letter to constituents that the aim of the orders would be to “eliminate extremism in all its forms” and that they would be used to curtail the activities of those who “spread hate but do not break laws”.
He explained that that the new orders, which will be in the Conservative election manifesto, would extend to any activities that “justify hatred” against people on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
He also disclosed that anyone seeking to challenge such an order would have to go the High Court, appealing on a point of law rather than fact.
The NSS and CI said they shared fears that the broad scope of extremism could represent a major threat to free speech.
Keith Porteous Wood, director of the NSS (above), said secularists might have to think twice before criticising Christianity or Islam. He said secularists risk being branded Islamophobic and racist because of their high profile campaigns against the advance of sharia law in the UK.
The Government should have every tool possible to tackle extremism and terrorism, but there is a huge arsenal of laws already in place and a much better case needs to be made for introducing draconian measures such as Extremism Disruption Orders, which are almost unchallengeable and deprive individuals of their liberties.
Without precise legislative definitions, deciding what are ‘harmful activities of extremist individuals who spread hate’ is subjective and therefore open to abuse now or by any future authoritarian government.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute, said traditionalist evangelicals who criticise gay marriage or even argue that all religions are not the same could find themselves accused of extremism.
Anyone who expresses an opinion that isn’t regarded as totally compliant with the Equality Act could find themselves ranked alongside Anjem Choudary, Islamic state or Boko Haram.
How many times a day do intellectually lazy political activists accuse their opponents of ‘spreading hatred’? The left does it, the right does it, liberals do it, conservatives do it, it is routine.
Hand a judge a file of a thousand Twitter postings accusing this atheist or that evangelical of ‘spreading hatred’ and they could easily rule that an EDO is needed. It’s a crazy idea – the Conservatives need to drop this like a hot brick.
A Conservative spokesman said:
Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are a vital part of a democratic society. In Government, Conservatives have always tried to strike the right balance on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to manifest one’s religion, and the need to protect the public. We have never sought to restrict peaceful protest or free speech, provided it is within the law.
Our proposal to introduce Extremism Disruption Orders reflects the need to go further on challenging the threat from extremism and those who spread their hateful views so that we can keep that democratic society safe.
Hat tip: Trevor Blake (Telegraph report)