25 April 2010

On the offensive

Last week all over the country there was widespread and flagrant abuse of the law against Religiously Aggravated Offences. Perhaps the most blatant occurred on national television, in front of an audience of over 4 million people, where three men repeatedly insulted, caricatured and lampooned each others' beliefs and the police didn't lift a finger. Perhaps it is lucky for all those people that the police chose such a narrow definition of belief systems that it is illegal to mock.

Somewhat less lucky was Harry Taylor, a self-confessed 'militant atheist', who left some cartoons poking fun at various belief systems in a prayer room at John Lennon Airport, Liverpool. The chaplain who discovered them did what any normal person would do who came across an offensive joke - she called the police. This being Liverpool, a city with a notoriously low crime rate and very little policing need, the local fuzz decided that it would be an appropriate use of public resources to investigate, arrest and prosecute Mr Taylor on the charge of 'religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress'. The punchline is Mr Talyor was not only found guilty and given a 6 month suspended sentence, he was issued an ASBO preventing him from carrying anti-religious materials in public.

You can read about the cartoon contents here - all had appeared previously in national mainstream publications - but it is interesting to see what passes for harassment amongst sensitive sections of the public. The much-derided blasphemy laws were finally abolished some two years ago, and were replaced by these harassment laws as both a sop to the hard-of-thinking and a way of updating outdated legislation. By putting the non-violent exchange of ideas onto a public order footing, it has had the effect of creating a much more virulent blasphemy law, that can be invoked subject to the caprice of regional police forces.

A couple of months ago I realised our reasonably newly-created street was finally on the map (even if it is not quite on Google Maps) when we got a visit from an army of Jehovah's Witnesses; I looked on the event as some kind of rite-of-passage into the normal life cycle of an everyday neighbourhood. Now I realise what I had missed was an opportunity to call the police and claim harassment on the grounds that someone was trying to give me literature that offended my beliefs. In light of Mr Taylor's story, I'd like to think it would be taken seriously - but I somehow suspect religious aggravation is strictly a one-way process.

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