Giving evidence to the justice committee on the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance, Kieran Turner, the charity’s public policy officer in Scotland, identified concerns around religious freedom and the unintended consequences of the proposed law.

The Scottish Government has already acknowledged widespread criticisms of the original proposals and has suggested amendments that would require any crime to be intended and not just considered likely by the courts. 

The Evangelical Alliance joined with many other organisations, both from faith groups and far wider, in highlighting that such proposals were incompatible with key principles of human rights and could see people prosecuted for offences that they did not know they committed. 

Speaking to the committee Kieran Turner said: Our major concern has always been that people would unintentionally get caught by this.”

While the proposed amendments brought forward by the Government have been welcomed by the Evangelical Alliance, Turner told the committee that they are not a magic bullet’. 

Appearing at the virtual committee meeting alongside representatives from the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church, the Free Church of Scotland as well as other faith groups and the National Secular Society, many further concerns were raised about the need for deeper and broader religious freedom protections. 

Turner told the committee: We very much think that the freedom clauses need to be both broadened and deepened and at the moment there is that hierarchy of defence or protection. We do think that the depth and the detail of the clauses need to be better. 

If new offences are being created, there needs to be a similar level of defences that enable that balance to be struck.”

A need for clarity in what the bill is trying to catch and what it is not trying to catch was also highlighted by Turner in his evidence to the committee, as well as the potential threat posed by the bill’s proposals around inflammatory materials and the lack of a dwelling place defence’.

Turner asked the committee: Could those two elements be combined to potentially warrant searches and seizures of people’s materials within their own homes?”

Also appearing before the committee was Rev Stephen Allison for the Free Church of Scotland, who also raised concerns about the protection of religious beliefs. He said: In particular a concern we have as a church is it doesn’t mention any ability to criticise or make comments about same-sex marriage, and given religious groups have protection to not conduct same-sex marriages, to have their views, we think there needs to be some reference to this in the bill, like there is in equivalent English legislation.”

The justice committee will continue to take evidence on the bill before it continues its progress through parliament, where MSPs will have a chance to debate and vote on the bill and the proposed amendments. 

We very much think that the freedom clauses need to be both broadened and deepened.