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Irreligious freedom

Should the right not to be offended have a place in the statute book?

Despite its recent, ahem, troubles, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is determined to press ahead with what its chair, Trevor Phillips, referred to as its "mission" in an article in Saturday's Guardian. But while setting out his agenda for the autumn, Phillips briefly mentioned one proposal that made me pause. "There will be new work," he wrote, on "hate crime against . . . religion and belief."

Why the hesitation? Who could object to stronger protection from intimidation, physical attack or bullying on these grounds? The problem is that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 already goes considerably further than that in its references to "threatening" words, behaviour, written material and public performance of a play. As Liberty warned at the time: "Criminalising even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with grave caution in a democracy."

Defenders of the act can point to Section 29J, "Protection of freedom of expression", which makes it clear that:

Nothing . . . shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents.

Further evidence of the act's innocent effect may be found in the paucity of prosecutions under the legislation to date, the charging last month of a former BNP candidate with incitement to racial hatred being a rare exception.

But there are two serious points to be made about this. First, the act's seeming toothlessness can hardly be said to be in its favour. If it is supposed to prevent the likes of Rowan Laxton, the head of the Foreign Office South Asia Group (since suspended), from shouting "Fucking Israelis" and "Fucking Jews" while exercising in his gym, as he is alleged to have done this February, then one must hope the prosecution is successful in bringing him to trial this month. (Many feel that his comments should have earned him dismissal and ostracism, but not prosecution. That, however, is an argument for the act's repeal, not in favour of our government producing legislation that turns out to be unenforceable.)

Second, what the act has contributed to, intentionally or not, is a climate in which the boundaries protecting free speech are slowly being pushed back without anyone ever discussing, agreeing, let alone legislating, that they should be moved. Not long before the act was passed, performances of Bezhti, a play by the British writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, were cancelled by Birmingham Repertory Theatre after hundreds of Sikhs protested at its depiction of rape and murder in a Sikh temple.

Worse was the response of Shirley Williams -- a woman whose political life has been at the coalface of liberal causes -- when asked on Question Time in 2007 about the decision to award a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. It was a "mistake", she said, because he was a man who had "deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way". You didn't have to concur with Christopher Hitchens's view of religion to approve of his rebuke: "I think that's a contemptible statement and everyone who applauded it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves."

This is the real worry about further "work" in this area: that well-meant legislation on hate crimes ends up giving force to a new right not to be offended that has not, and should not have, any place on the statute book. This may surprise readers who saw my column introducing this blog. Did I not castigate Sebastian Faulks for his comments on the Quran? I do indeed deplore his careless, thoughtless and offensive remarks. I don't think he should have made them. But I would never, ever, deny his right to have done so. So I look forward with interest to the EHRC's plans. When they meet, matters of opinion, belief and the law intersect in the most dangerous way. Great caution is required in policing this.