In a letter to the Telegraph today the group writes:
Sir - We, as leaders of some of the main organisations representing the views of Christians, Muslims, secularists and humanists in this country, are calling on MPs to vote tonight to reject the Government's proposals for a wide-ranging new offence of religious hatred and instead support the cross-party Conservative-Labour-Liberal Democrat amendments.
As people with strong views on religion, we know how easy it is to offend those with whom you disagree and how easy it is to resent what others say, and see insult in it.
But we also recognise that a free society must have the scope to debate, criticise, proselytise, insult and even to ridicule belief and religious practices in order to ensure that there is full scope - short of violence or inciting violence or other criminal offences - to tackle these issues.
The amendments that we hope will be supported will deliver the Government its election pledge of a new law, but one that would cover only threatening words or behaviour, would be restricted to intentional offences only and would have a clear statement in law that protects legitimate free expression.
Tonight's vote is the last chance to protect this precious liberty that we all enjoy.
Keith Porteous Wood, National Secular Society
Hanne Stinson, British Humanist Association
Colin Hart, Christian Institute
Don Horrocks, Evangelical Alliance
Dr Ghyasuddin Siddiqui, Muslim Parliament
Manzoor Moghal, Muslim Forum
Superficially this might be seen as a positive move, but I'm afraid the involvement of organisations such as the Christian Institute and the Evangelical Alliance does make me wonder. The others may be perfectly moderate organisations genuinely wishing to see unnecessary and damaging legislation kept off the statue book, I don't know enough about them to judge, but the two I mention are certainly not moderate by any stretch of the imagination and their involvement troubles me a lot as to what their underlying motives may be.
Naturally, you will not be surprised to learn, I have formed a view about that. It strikes me that the recent criticism of Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britian, for anti-homosexual remarks he made during a radio broadcast recently (even although it was later decided by the police that his comments did not warrant prosecution), may have persuaded these other groups that it would be dangerous to set a potential precedent by having the religious hatred proposal become law as this might be used at a later stage to justify the introduction of legislation to protect members of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) communities in the same way that the Sex Discrimination Act and the laws against racial discrimination already in place protect those two major segments of the British population. A number of the groups who signed the letter above have regularly made comments about the GLBT communities at least as deplorable as those made recently by Iqbal Sacranie.
On balance I would prefer not to see the religious hatred proposals become law, but the support of at least some of the signatories to the above letter does make me doubtful that my initial reaction is the correct one.
UPDATE: (Wednesday 1FEB06 01.20 GMT) The government has been defeated in its attempt to overturn two Lords' amendments to its Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. The Bill as amended will, according to Home Secretary Charles Clarke, now become law; his blustering that they (the government defeats on the amendments) were 'merely a political act' on the parts of those opposing its will is laughable and shows just how defective is his understanding of what democracy is all about.