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    Saturday, March 04, 2006

    Intolerant ‘tolerance’; Religious Hatred legislation

    Canada and England are way ahead of the U.S.A. in prohibiting speech that is
    likely to offend. The prohibition affects the ability of religious people to
    offend the irreligious by speaking the truth. It is more than politeness carried
    too far. It is a cousin of what we saw and see in Communist nations.

    From a "speech in the House of Lords, February 9 2006"

    How else can we explain the anxiety not only of religious leaders but also of comedians when faced with that dangerously vague and insidious Religious Hatred legislation? How else can we explain the police investigation of religious leaders such as my Right Reverend colleague the Bishop of Chester, or the Chair of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, for making moderate and considered statements about homosexual practice? And since the crimes in question have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs, what we are seeing is thought crime. People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged. My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. All that such a situation can achieve is to add another new fear to those which minorities already experience. The word for such a state of affairs is ‘tyranny’: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police.

    In that climate, we have seen ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom’ reduced to mere licence – and then redefined so that we will not, any longer, tolerate dissent from the new party lines. Intolerant ‘tolerance’, my Lords, is one of the greatest obstacles to genuine freedom of speech.

    In these initiatives, ‘tolerance’ is not the point. My Lords, I can ‘tolerate’ someone standing on the other side of the street. I don’t need to engage with them. ‘Tolerance’ all too easily supposes that all religions are basically the same, and that all of them can be discounted for the purposes of public life. No, my Lords: ‘tolerance’ is a parody of something deeper, richer and more costly, for which we must work: a genuine and reciprocal freedom, a freedom properly contextualised within a wise responsibility, freedom not to be gratuitously rude or offensive, especially to those who are already in danger on the margins of society, but to speak the truth as we see it while simultaneously listening to the truth as others see it, and to work forwards from there. This is so in matters of religion; it is so in matters of public policy; it is so in matters of sexual morality; and it is so in areas where all those issues, and others, rightly overlap and interlock. And, my Lords, it is precisely that sort of wise, responsible freedom which is at risk if you’re afraid that honestly held beliefs, clearly and respectfully expressed, are likely to get you into trouble with the law.



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