Sectarianism should be classified as a hate crime, Scottish Government told
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Sectarianism should be officially defined in Scots law and classified as an aggrevating factor under hate crime legislation, according to a group of legal specialists.
The working group on defining sectarianism in Scots law, which was chaired by Professor Duncan Morrow of Ulster University, notes that although the term sectarianism is widely used in everyday life, it has no official definition in law.
While the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to make changes to civil law, such as the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act or employment law, to tackle discrimination on sectarian grounds, it does have the power to make changes to criminal law.
The working group has recommended that the Scottish Government should introduce a legal definition as part of its planned changes to hate crime legislation.
It also calls for the creation of a new aggravation of sectarian prejudice in addition to the existing aggravations of religious and racial prejudice.
The report says: “We believe that there are advantages to setting out the language of sectarianism explicitly in statute, rather than allowing sectarian offending to be subsumed into the broad general categories of religious and racial hatred.
“We also recognise the potential for creating a new offence of stirring up sectarian hatred, if adequate legal safeguards are introduced to protect free expression.”
The offence would be limited to hate crime between Christian denominations at present as the group said it did not think that enough is understood about sectarianism in relation other communities “to make the application of ‘sectarianism’ to these communities meaningful in a legal or social sense”.
Labour MSP James Kelly, who led the opposition parties in overturning the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act earlier this year, welcomed the recommendations.
He said: “For too long, the major issue of religious bigotry and intolerance has been neglected and not taken seriously.
“This was clear when the Scottish Government rushed ahead with the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, without sufficient understanding of what actually constitutes sectarianism.
“There should be no doubt that the Scottish Government’s credibility in dealing with sectarianism is compromised by this definition being published seven years after its then flagship legislation which sought to tackle the problem.
“Only recently, we have seen concerning incidents of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry in society.
“It is right that in light of such instances of intolerance, progress needs to be made to properly address these issues in criminal law.”