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Bad News from Across the Pond

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Bad news from the United Kingdom often causes concern over whether today's headlines in the Telegraph could be tomorrow's in the New York Times. The federal "hate crimes" legislation now moving through Congress bears a striking resemblance to hate-crimes laws already well established in the U.K. The British hate-crimes laws often seek to punish speech the government deems "homophobic" or offensive to certain religious groups. The laws have not had a happy result for those who value freedom of speech and expression.

Religion, tolerance and free speech

In one recent case, two men who disparaged Islam at an event in a tavern in 2004 were accused of hate crimes. One of them had called the religion "wicked" and "vicious." After their acquittal, Chancellor Gordon Brown opined that the hate crime laws need revisiting. "I think any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country and I think we've got to do whatever we can to root it out from whatever quarter it comes," he said. "And if that means we've got to look at the laws again I think we will have to do so."

Teachers' self-censorship of information that might be offensive has also become a problem in some British schools. Some Muslims in Britain hold beliefs that conflict with the democratic society in which they live. In a 2006 survey of British Muslims, 30% said they would rather live under Sharia, or Islamic religious law, than under British law. 28% said they hope the United Kingdom will become a fundamentalist Islamic state. 62% do not believe that free speech should be protected if it offends religious groups, and 68% favor the arrest and prosecution of anyone who "insults" Islam.

Worldviews collide in the classroom when some fundamentalist Muslims disagree with the accepted history of certain topics or events. A recent study reported that some teachers skip teaching on the Holocaust, or treat it only briefly, because they are afraid of confronting "anti-semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils."

The study found that some teachers avoid the Crusades, "because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques."

The report even mentions the War on Terror as a potentially "emotive and controversial" topic. The 2006 poll, taken just after the thwarted 7/7 terrorist attack in Britain, found that 45% of British Muslims think the 9/11 terrorist attack was a conspiracy by the U.S. and Israeli governments. Less than 22% said it was definitely not a conspiracy. The government's report on controversy in the classroom attempted to provide teachers with strategies for dealing with such conflicting opinions, so that learning could move forward in history classrooms at all levels. (Report)

Increasingly, the British government seeks to eradicate "homophobia" at the expense of the free conscience of those who think homosexuality is wrong. This policy has even expressed itself in bizarre "zero-tolerance" incidents that have little to do with homosexuality or homophobia. Just ask 11-year-old George Rawlinson, who called a schoolmate "gay" in an e-mail. Two policemen came to his home and told his father, Alan Rawlinson, that his son might have committed a serious homophobic crime.

"They told me they considered it a very serious offense," the father told The Guardian. "I could not believe what I was hearing." The police have decided not to pursue the issue, but still claim "going to the boy's house was a reasonable course of action to take."

Parliament recently passed new anti-discrimination regulations that will affect children placed for adoption, as well as the freedom of conscience in the United Kingdom. The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 explicitly aim to end discrimination against homosexuals, but in reality take wider aim at groups critical of homosexuality. They remove government funding from adoption agencies that refuse to place children with homosexual couples. Catholic bishops have said this could force the closure of the Catholic Church's adoption agencies in the U.K.

In a speech in Westminster Cathedral, Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor questioned "whether the threads holding together pluralist democracy have begun to unravel." The Catholic Church's efforts to gain an exemption from the regulations for their adoption agencies provoked discussion, but ultimately failed. The Cardinal described the act as a historic turning point. "It seems to me we are being asked to accept a different version of our democracy, one in which diversity and equality are held to be at odds with religion," the Cardinal said. "My fear is that, under the guise of legislating for what is said to be tolerance, we are legislating for intolerance. Once this begins, it is hard to see where it ends. . . . What looks like liberality is in reality a radical exclusion of religion from the public sphere."

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