Freedoms of religion, conscience and speech were discussed at an important conferences held in London recently. ‘Enemies of the State: Religious Freedom and the New Repression’, was held at Conway Hall, home to an important archive on humanism. It was co-hosted by Spiked and by ADF International.
Spiked is a Marxist leaning online journal. Its editor, Brendan O’Neill, (‘an atheistic libertarian’), worked at its predecessor, ‘Living Marxism’, the journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). RCP was founded by Frank Furedi, (a humanist), Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent (and husband of Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of British Pregnancy Advisory service, the UK’s largest independent abortion provider). Both of these gentlemen addressed the conference. ADF International is a Christian body that engages in legal advocacy for religious freedom, sanctity of life and marriage and family. Its deputy director, Paul Coleman, also spoke. The other speakers were CEO of Index on Censorship, Jodie Ginsberg, Oxford philosopher Roger Trigg, the Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert, human rights activist prominent in LGBT advocacy, Peter Tatchell, legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg and Muslim cleric and academic Muhammad Al-Hussaini. These unlikely bedfellows united in their concern to increase public awareness about threats to freedom. The event attracted a correspondingly diverse audience.
The conference discussed the proliferation of restrictions of freedoms of conscience, religion and speech. UK examples in 2016 include the report of the Christian couple who were denied the right to adopt two children they had been fostering. Their representation that the children would be best cared for by a mother and a father was deemed to be ‘concerning’ and possibly ‘detrimental to the long-term needs of the children.’ Richard Page, a Christian magistrate, was suspended as a non-executive director of an NHS Trust when he raised doubts on Facebook about same sex marriage. Felix Ngole, a Christian postgraduate student, was expelled from his university course when he opposed same sex marriage on Facebook. Court cases discussed included the B&B owners who refused accommodation to a gay couple and Ashers who refused to ice a cake with a slogan promoting same sex marriage. Recent European examples include the (failed) criminal proceedings in Spain against the Archbishop of Valencia for an allegedly sexist and homophobic homily, the (discontinued) prosecution of a German comedian who joked about the Turkish president and the prison sentence given to a man in Holland for ‘intentionally insulting’ the king on Facebook.
Peter Tatchell declared the Ashers decision a defeat for freedom of expression. ADF’s Paul Coleman expressed deep concern about European Commission measures to combat ‘illegal online hate speech’, which it is feared will extend beyond the aim of counterterrorism to, in the words of the Commissioner, countering ‘so-called religious principles.’ The UK government’s plans to introduce far-reaching counter-extremism legislation may further threaten freedom (see here and here ). Muhammad Al-Hussaini (who defended Pastor McConnell’s freedom to insult Islam) suggested that “’hate’ (speech) is being used instrumentally to pathologise and demonise any person or group found distasteful or problematic.” He said the term ‘hate speech’ has no more legitimacy than ‘thought crime.’ Brendan O’Neill observed that state restrictions on hate speech punish people for what they think and feel and are a profound assault on the freedom of the individual.