, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 41-53

Religious Hatred Laws: Protecting Groups or Belief?

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Abstract

This article examines the issues raised by recent legislation proscribing incitement to religious hatred. In particular, it examines how far arguments for prohibiting racist hate speech apply also to the prohibition of religious hate speech. It identifies a number of significant differences between race and religion. It also examines several questions raised by the prohibition of religious hate speech, including the meaning and scope of religious identity, why that identity should receive special protection, and whether protection should be directed to religious groups as groups or to their individual members. The central argument of the article is that the distinction between protecting religious groups from vilification and protecting their beliefs and practices from criticism—a distinction on which the British Government placed great emphasis in defending its legislation—is unsustainable. That conclusion is supported by the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights in cases in which it has upheld the curtailing of freedom of expression for the sake of protecting religion.