Occasionally, the aims of the NSS coincide with those of some Christian campaigners. We sometimes join forces with Catholics for Choice or Ekklesia. We’re even supporting a Christian Institute campaign to resist the march of sharia law in the UK.
Now we’re supporting an effort to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 in an effort to protect freedom of speech.
As it stands, the Act outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” and behaviour that is “likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”.
Edward Leigh, the Christian MP, who has tabled the amendment in parliament, said that it is the subjectivity of the term “insulting” that is the problem. “I believe that removing the word ‘insulting’ would be enough to stop Section 5 being misused and generating a chilling effect on free speech,” he told the House of Commons.
“Section 5 is a classic example of a law that was brought in for one thing, fair enough, to deal long ago with a particular state of affairs, but in practice is being used for something quite different. It was brought in to tackle hooliganism, but is increasingly used by police to silence peaceful protesters and street preachers.”
The law has been used as a justification to arrest street evangelists who shout out biblical condemnations of homosexuals, but it has also been used against other campaigners – an animal rights activist was arrested after someone took exception to her using a toy seal with red paint on it to protest about seal culling.
Liberal Democrat president, Tim Farron, and the Labour party’s Tom Watson, a former Government Minister, together with six other MPs from across the parties have signed up to the amendment. NSS honorary associate Dr Evan Harris has also spoken out in its support.
When the NSS was approached by its proponents to support this amendment, we had no hesitation. Although the Christians who are at the forefront of the initiative want to prevent the arrest of street preachers for offending homosexuals, we want to ensure that it also works the other way round, and that religious people can no longer use their “insulted sensibilities” as a means of silencing their critics.
As secularists, it is our duty to ensure that the law is fair to everybody. As defenders of free speech we have to argue for the right of religious people to insult and criticise us as much as we argue for the right to freely criticise them, without fear of a visit from the police. Free speech is not free if it is available only to some and not others.
In the interests of open debate, we have to support changes that will stop the law intervening over hurt feelings and offence-taking. Indeed, if you’ve ever tried to engage with proselytising Muslims about their religion, the first thing that will be heard when anything vaguely critical of Islam is mentioned, is “I find that really offensive.”
At best that is usually the end of the conversation and at worst it will herald a knock on the door from PC Plod.
Unfortunately, changing Section 5 of the Public Order Act won’t be of help to you if your employer disciplines or sacks you for vigorously pooh-poohing your Islamist or Christian colleagues’ attempts at evangelising you at work. Answering back against their proselytising could find you accused of harassing them on grounds of their religion.
One interesting sideline that this attempt to extend freedom of speech has revealed is how the NSS is regarded in some evangelical Christian circles.
After I had been interviewed about the campaign on Premier Christian Radio, my support was noted by the influential Christian website Lifesite News, with these comments:
The MPs’ attempt to ameliorate the situation in Britain has received the surprise backing of one of the country’s most virulent anti-Christian campaigners. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society (NSS), has said that there should be no objection to a change to make it more difficult for people to involve the law when they feel offended.Sanderson, who is one of the leading voices in Britain to abolish all public acknowledgement of Christianity, told media, “I think that most people who value free speech, and that’s most democrats, would say that it’s common sense to say that you cannot take offence and then call in the law to say my feelings must be protected.
I do not think that I have ever argued to “abolish all public acknowledgement of Christianity” and nor do I regard myself as “a virulent anti-Christian campaigner”.
As secularists, the NSS argues for a public space that is open to everyone, without prejudice. But if it is to be a genuinely free and open, it cannot be dominated by one opinion, religious or otherwise.
In a democracy, individual Christians have as much right as anyone else to participate in public life (as, indeed, Edward Leigh and many other Christians do, in Parliament) and to advocate for their cause.
But Christianity as an ideology cannot be integrated into a secular state. Nor can any other religious belief. That does not mean to say that we are arguing to end people’s right to have a faith or to practise it within the law.
In Britain at the moment, Christianity, as practised by the Church of England, is the official state-recognised religion. But that must change. Britain is no longer a mono-faith nation. Increasingly it is a country of no religion at all, and paradoxically has perhaps more other religions in Britain than any other country.
That doesn’t mean that Christianity must be banished from all public discourse and it does not mean that Christians must be disadvantaged or suffer discrimination as individuals. But it does mean that clerics, imams, archbishops, rabbis and all the rest will not have an automatic right to direct law-making. They will not have privileged access to the public purse, nor any special concessions in equality law beyond those required by EU directives.
When you have enjoyed these perks for centuries, the prospect of having them taken away will, of course, feel like discrimination. But it is not discrimination. It is a fair and equal sharing of resources in society and a respect for the needs of smaller and less influential groups.
Whether it is the removal of transport subsidies to religious schools (which cost all taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds every year but are only available to the privileged few who happen to claim a particular religious affiliation) or the ending of the participation of Anglican bishops in the law-making process, it needs to be done if we are to be just to all.
This is not anti-Christian, it is pro-everybody else. If only religious people would listen, they would realise that secularism is not their enemy but might one day, as religious diversity increases, be their best friend.