Legal Action To Stop Sectarian Bill

Two Christian charities have launched legal action to try and delay Holyrood passing new laws against sectarianism.

MSPs are due to vote today on the emergency legislation that aims to tackle hate crime in Scotland.

If passed, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill would mean those convicted could spend as long as five years in prison and be banned from football grounds.

The legislation is being rushed through Parliament ahead of the start of the football season next month.

However, MSPs efforts could be confounded by a legal challenge by two Christian charities responding to concerns by the Law Society of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, civil rights groups and others that the new laws could impinge on freedom of speech if they are not carefully drafted.

Legal papers filed at the Court of Session by The Christian Institute and Care for Scotland last night urged the court to delay the legislation and "allow everyone to take a breath and make sure crucial mistakes are not made".

If the legal action is successful, the court could declare that the rushed consultation was unlawful.

The parties want to see a free speech clause inserted to prevent the unintentional criminalisation of religious jokes, atheists criticising Christianity, journalists debating fundamentalist Islam, or peaceful preaching.

Meanwhile, the Green party signalled its intention to vote against proposals to rush through the bill.

Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland told Holyrood's Justice Committee that the Bill is not intended to cover peaceful preaching or restrict freedom of speech, including the right to criticise or comment on religion.

However, he suggested that the presence of "other aggravating behaviour" while singing anthems or making religious gestures could constitute an offence.

Mr Mulholland said the bill "doesn't necessarily have to be in before the football season" but said he would like to see it in place by then "because it gives us a clean break with the events of last season".

The committee also heard security chiefs at Scotland's two biggest football clubs state that the new laws had taken them by surprise.

David Martin and Ronnie Hawthorn, heads of security and operations at Rangers and Celtic respectively, also questioned the timescale at the committee.

Scottish Churches parliamentary officer Chloe Clemmons also told the committee fast-tracking the bill had caused serious consultation problems.

However, Stewart Regan, chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, welcomed the speedy implementation of the legislation.