Religious rights: free speech and hate speech

A couple of news items flagged up by Hemant, the Friendly Atheist, the other day have me thinking about “religious freedom”. What should the relationship be between laws protecting freedom of religion and the rest of the laws in a society?

One is this report of a bus driver in Iowa refusing to drive a bus with an ad on it promoting a local atheist group. The message on the ad is: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”, and includes the group’s name (Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers) and their URL ( The bus driver was suspended for refusing to do her job. She’s now back at work, but the issue is probably not over. Her employers said she can keep her job so long as she doesn’t do it again; she says that if she’s given another bus with the ad, she will again refuse to drive it.

The other is this story (which I could only find reported at the Telegraph) of street preachers John and Miguel Hayworth being told off by police for allegedly reading homophobic and racist passages from the Bible to passersby. They feel that their right to religious practice is being infringed. Others feel that their actions amount to hate speech.

In the case of the bus driver, I really don’t think there’s much room for reasonable dissent. The ad is in no way inflammatory. It doesn’t say anything that could reasonably be considered offensive. It is even milder than the surprisingly controversial UK bus ads, which go so far as to say that “There’s probably no god”. I can’t see how the driver could argue that driving the bus would violate any sensible ethic. Her reaction reflects a general tendency among humans to exaggerate the offensiveness of statements they disagree with.

The case of the street preachers raises a more interesting and difficult issue to resolve. On the one hand, free speech is a fundamentally important right. It supersedes people’s desire not to be offended (for example, by inflammatory passages of scripture). On the other hand, incitement to violence is dangerous and should be prevented – if someone is actively promoting hatred and violence against a group, then society (through the police and the courts) is right to stop them.

So the question is, where is the line between protected free speech and prohibited hate speech? As Hemant points out, there are several passages in the Bible that simply and straightforwardly promote death for certain acts. Here are a couple of examples:

Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

(For more examples, see this essay at Religious Tolerance.)

I’m not saying these verses in particular were used by the Hayworths – they are not among those mentioned in the Telegraph article. But they are from the Bible, and thus might be claimed as protected by religious evangelists.

If someone were to stand on the Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh and start saying we should kill all the Wiccans, or all the practicing homosexual men, that person would (I hope) be arrested. Nobody has a right to encourage violence like that.

And yet, the passages I mention above say exactly that: kill witches; kill men who have sex with men.

So here are the crucial questions:

Would it ameliorate the crime at all if the exhortation to violence is based on (or directly read from) a religious text? Should religious expression trump hate speech laws?

On both counts, my answer is a firm no. No idea deserves any special protection just because someone claims it as a religious idea, no matter how old or widespread the idea is.

Despite occasional cries to the contrary, applying the same rules to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs is not discrimination. It is the opposite. Discrimination would be applying different rules (extending either privilege or persecution) based solely on religious belief (or lack of it).

So, if the Hayworths were reciting passages that promote hatred and violence against others, then police interference was justified. If they were just reciting passages that are offensive to others’ feelings (and there are plenty to choose from), then they should have been allowed to continue.

(A point of curiosity: I wonder if the Hayworths would defend the atheist bus ads? After all, they are at least as innocuous a form of expression as reciting scripture to passersby. Conservative religious people seem often to be not only the ones crying foul when they don’t have all the religious privileges they would like; they also seem to be the most vocal critics of atheists who try to share their worldview with others.)


6 Responses to “Religious rights: free speech and hate speech”

  1. ninetysixandten Says:

    Tim,you may be lacking a bit of context when you describe the Bible as containing hate speech.The passages in Exodus and Leviticus are certainly juicy tidbits for people who want to want to claim that (that the Bible contains hate speech). But it's just daft to take them out of context like this. The "killing" you refer to is a civil penalty for a crime against the law of the land, as it was then. Far from being a text you could preach from on the Royal Mile, encouraging fellow believers to go around slaughtering people, verses like these refer to the outcome of a judicial process, carried out according to the law of the land. It's obviously the law of a land that no longer exists, and not the kind of punishment that our legal systems tend to mete out any more, but to overlook the judicial, legal, civil nature of passages like this is to fundamentally mistake the nature of the passages in question. Also, if you don't mind me adding, this mistake is presumably what allows you to make the rather remarkable glide from "allegations of homophobia were made against these men" to "these men could easily have been exhorting to violence" – clearly without understanding the context of the passages, you don't realise how grossly unlikely it would be for a Christian street preacher to cite passages like these as part of an evangelistic message!The freedom of speech issue is, surely, entirely straightforward. It should not be a matter for the police if you happen to believe that homosexual practice is wrong. Nor indeed if you say that homosexual practice is wrong, or if you quote approvingly scriptural passages which say that homosexual practice is wrong.

  2. notsofriendlyhumanist Says:

    96&10,It depends entirely on what passages were used. If the passages did incite violence (and there aren't many passages in the Bible related to homosexuality which don't – I've certainly heard those passages recited so it's not as unlikely as you seem to think), then regardless of whether it's Biblical or not, widespread or not, then they should have been arrested as the law says. It always strikes me when people claim to be being discriminated against when really they're being asked to follow the same rules as everyone else.But what strikes me most about your post is the way you say "if you happen to believe that homosexual practice is wrong", as if that's an acceptable belief to have. It's like saying "if you happen to believe that black people are inferior". No, I don't think people should be arrested for saying such things (actually I'm not sure I think incitement to violence should be a crime either), but these kinds of beliefs should be tackled at every opportunity, and people who spout (or 'preach') them should be shown up for the medieval bigots they really are.

  3. Timothy Mills Says:

    I actually think it's okay for people to believe that homosexual practice is wrong. It's healthy for a society to have a diversity of opinions. I disagree with them, and I think that unless they can convince society at large of the merit of their position, we should not privilege that position in law.Homophobia (a fear or even a hatred of homosexuality) is most emphatically not equivalent to promoting hatred or violence. If someone is prejudiced against a particular group (fairly or unfairly), they should be able to express their prejudice. Otherwise, we might (a) not realize that such ideas are prevalant and (b) not have the opportunity to counter them with better ideas.96:10, you are right that, for thoughtful readers of the Christian scriptures, context is very important. I would not describe the Bible as a whole as hate speech.However, some portions of it are, when taken on their own, hateful, and do clearly promote violence.Not only that, but there are Christians who are quite happy to take such passages out of context and use them to excuse hateful speech and even violence. For all that some Christians have been among the social reformers of recent centuries, other Christians have been among the slave-owners and the opponents of social progress.So I don't think it's unfair to say that passages such as those I mentioned might be used by self-identified Christians to promote hatred and violence. I think such people would be in a minority among Christians, but that is no reason to pretend they don't exist.I'm interested to know where you stand on the key question I raised. Should we give special consideration to people's sacred books (Quran, Torah, Bible, Bhagavad Gita, etc.) when deciding whether a statement is hate speech?

  4. ninetysixandten Says:

    NSF – as I indicated to Tim, "inciting violence" is simply not what these texts are doing. It's an exegetical question, and your hermeneutics are all wrong, dude! These verses are stating a judicial penalty for committing what was a crime in that particular nation – which you might or might not agree was a good idea, but it's only "inciting violence" in the way that it "incites violence" for people to agree with the death penalty for capital offences – even if it seems barbaric, there is still a legal system, due process, involved in a way that is simply not akin to the vigilante or mob action that's involved in actual incitement to a crime.Glad we're all agreed that arrest isn't the way forward for people who spout or preach objectionable views. Tim – you say, "So I don't think it's unfair to say that passages such as those I mentioned might be used by self-identified Christians to promote hatred and violence." It's probably not unfair to say that anything might be used by anyone for anything, but if anyone does use passages such as those to promote hatred and violence, they're doing as much violence to the text as you two are. As I say, the regulations and penalties which were in force for civil society in the Old Testament do not, and cannot, under any exegetical stretch, form part of an evangelistic message. (Oh, NSF says he's heard them recited – Tim can probably don his linguist hat and explain the use/mention distinction if need be – the exegetical point stands.) It's the one of the biggest myths of the new atheist dogma, that the Bible is full of hate speech – the idea of engaging with the actual scriptural texts is apparently entirely foreign to this worldview, thus conveniently allowing the near-complete ignoring of the centuries of interpretation and understanding which the Christian church has undertaken, or so it seems from my side of the fence at any rate.The key question – well, bearing in mind that I reject the implicit accusation that exhortations to violence can be read from the Bible, I have no problem agreeing that incitement to violence should continue to be treated as a crime, regardless of whether the violence is justified or motivated on the basis of a religious text.

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    Without the exegetical knowledge that you possess, Cath, I will not presume to rule on what is the "true" meaning of any given passage in the Bible.Instead, what I (and many atheists, and I daresay most self-identified Christians) do is interpret a claim in the context in which I am exposed to it. If it's in a blog post by a thoughtful Christian, who provides supporting text showing that the condemnation of gay sex is a situational command that clearly doesn't apply to today's world, then of course I won't be inclined to see it as hate speech. If, on the other hand, it's in a tirade from a bloke on the street, waving a Bible about and telling me to stop tolerating the people that his God so clearly condemns, then of course I will say that it is hate speech.I do not have to know the long and intricate history of biblical scholarship to correctly identify, say, the Westboro Baptist Church website as a poisonous cesspool of hatred and vitriol. Whether their interpretation of the Bible is ultimately correct, their use of verses on that website clearly consitute an attempt to incite hatred against gay people.I apologize for not making the distinction more clearly in my initial post between the "true" meaning of the passages (which I don't pretend to know) and the meaning that is obvious from how certain people use them. Perhaps this is a general failing of the atheist critics of religion. But then, it swings both ways. As I pointed in my recent critique of Blanchard's book, religious people often fail (or simply don't bother) to actually understand the humanist or atheist position before presuming to give a sound refutation of it. (That's not an excuse for my own laziness – just a way of saying that I understand where you're coming from.)

  6. Anonymous Says:

    ''I think that unless they can convince society at large of the merit of their position, we should not privilege that position in law.''TMReally. If they could, then should we?

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