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Watch what you say

Scotland’s blasphemy law means it’s just as well The Queen didn’t attend COP26

Artillery Row

Having grown up on the famous “Bonnie Bonnie Banks” of Loch Lomond, I’ve always thought that Glasgow was the center of the universe. It was with some surprise this month that I saw the rest of the world catch on. The media has been rife with celeb-spotting on Sauchiehall Street – from articles about Leonardo do Caprio’s airfare, to rapturous praise for eco-warrior Carrie Johnson’s decision to wear a red Zara blazer twice. But not all of the star-studded guest list have made the trip. Her Majesty the Queen and Pope Francis kept their distance from the COP26 chaos. I myself deigned to join them. And what’s more, I think all three of us have at least one good common reason for doing so.

Yes, it may have been health reasons that the octo- and nonagenarian global leaders cited to excuse their absence from the world’s biggest climate congress. But — putting their diplomatic immunity aside for a moment — given the biblical beliefs that both have espoused in public, it’s just as well they’re not going to be roaming the streets of Glasgow, where free speech is notoriously restricted. For those who had any doubt about Pope Francis’s views on abortion, he clarified the matter in September. 

The new Scottish law could put those with traditional views on marriage behind bars for seven years

“Abortion is murder,” he said. “Those who carry out abortions kill.” 

 And what about the Queen? As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she carries her own Christian “baggage”. The Church supports and exclusively recognises Biblical marriage between a man and woman. 

But this is a view held by about 1 in 5 Brits, you might argue. Surely there’d be no trouble for our Liz? 

Unfortunately, the new Scottish Hate Crime and Public Order Law could potentially impose up to seven years in prison for those who voice traditional views about marriage and sexuality. At the very least, believers could be reported and face stressful police investigations. There are caveats for free speech, but whilst they allow for “antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult” of religion, a lower threshold of “discussion or criticism” applies for matters of sexual orientation and gender identity.

And things don’t fare so well for Pope Francis coming over either. Other men of the cloth have faced severe troubles for voicing their Catholic beliefs this side of the English Channel. Just take Father David Palmer. The Catholic Priest was rejected as a chaplain by Nottingham University despite the nomination of his Bishop. The rejection occurred after it came to light that he had expressed his support for life from conception till natural death on Twitter. A Catholic Priest had expressed Catholic views ahead of taking a Catholic position at the University. With support from free speech-supporting groups like ADF UK and the Free Speech Union, the decision was overturned – but the censorial chill remains for onlooking staff. 

Many others with Christian views in the UK face even harsher consequences than Father Palmer. Seventy-one-year-old Pastor John Sherwood was physically pulled off his stepladder, arrested and detained in May when he was preaching about Christian views on marriage in the street. Not even a full week later, school chaplain Rev. Dr. Bernard Randall was reported to the government’s terrorist watchdog — yes, terrorist — for telling children that they are allowed to believe the Biblical position on marriage if they want to. He’d also told them, in the same lesson, that “love thy neighbour as yourself” was a critical part of Christian teaching and left no room for the abuse of anyone. He was suspended, investigated, reported to authorities as being a “danger to children”, and finally dismissed. Hazel Lewis is a female street evangelist who made headlines recently for facing a wrongful arrest and 18-month ordeal for espousing Christian views in the public square. The examples are piling up.

Christian views may now be the minority, but ostracizing and arresting those who hold them repeats the mistakes of the past

Christian views about marriage and pre-born life may not be as popular as they once were. Once upon a time, those who disagreed with the Church were disavowed as heretics, ostracized, arrested or worse. Thankfully, Scotland repealed its blasphemy law earlier this year. But in a subtle yet dangerous flick of the wrist, Holyrood has actually replaced one blasphemy law for another one in disguise. Christian views may now be the minority, but ostracizing and arresting those who hold them – or those who simply challenge the “Church of Woke” — repeats the mistakes of the past. Without open discussion, we are not a democracy. 

And at the moment, things are set to get worse. Holyrood may have put Scotland at the forefront of speech-restriction, but south of Hadrian’s Wall, Westminster aren’t far behind. The controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill will make it a crime to say things publicly which cause “serious annoyance” in England and Wales. The bill can be used to condemn those who are too noisy, too inconvenient, and those who cause “serious unease” to another member of the public (whatever that means).  

A bleak picture indeed. But there might be a ray of hope. To dwell on the gloom of the incoming PCSC Bill is to miss an opportunity in the hands of politicians right now to actually improve free speech. This bill marks the first time in thirty-five years that the Public Order Act, under which street preachers and others are being arrested, is being updated. And there is still a chance to change the bill for the better. Time is closing in quickly. But if Peers in the House of Lords make use of this opportunity, we could see a free speech clause introduced that would be a stake in the ground for robust and fair debate. 

Some activists up in Glasgow this week are claiming we have 3-4 years to save the planet. Well, it’s perhaps a tad less dramatic than global oblivion, but the House of Lords could have less than 3-4 days to save the right to be “seriously annoying” – or to simply express our beliefs and ideas in public without fear or censorship. It’s time for our defenders of democracy to make this clear in law.  They must make it clear on the face of the bill that the freedom to dissent, ridicule and most importantly share deeply held beliefs in the public square remains within the law and is a fundamental right. Because free speech is for all, even those who disagree – whether it is John Sherwood, Hazel Lewis, Rev. Dr. Bernard Randall, the Queen, the Pope or I.  

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