According to a deeply alarming report in The Daily Sceptic, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has given a written statement in a court case which appears to suggest that it is now illegal to quote certain passages in the bible in public - and "offensive" and illegal to advocate a policy (the death penalty) which used to have overwhelming support and still polls over 40%.
During a case brought against an individual who was accused of threatening and offensive behaviour - and I think it is impossible to make any fair and informed judgement about the merits of the case against him in general as the case was dropped because it proved impossible to contact the individuals who had complained about him - the CPS is reported to have made a statement to the court, in writing, which includes the following:
“Whether a statement of Christian belief or not, the court is being asked to consider whether the language has the potential to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
“This document is not the forum for religious debate, but the bible contains other material recognising slavery (Exodus 21:7), the death sentence (Exodus 35:2 and Leviticus 24:16) and cannibalism (Deuteronomy 28:27).
“There are references in the bible which are simply no longer appropriate in modern society and which would be deemed offensive if stated in public.”
I certainly don't think that some of the things in the passages referred to would be accepted by most Christians or Jews as reflecting modern Christianity or Judaism today. These are historical statements of what was Hebrew doctrine more than 2,500 years ago.
But we are setting ourselves down an extremely dangerous and slippery slope if we suggest that quoting from these ancient documents in public is offensive and illegal. For a start, even if you don't agree with the passages cited, theologians and historians would need to be able to quote them to explain how and why they are no longer relevant and how the religions concerned have moved on.
Shouting something threatening at another individual may well be illegal, regardless of what you are shouting, and that could include a passage from a holy book. But it is the fact that you are shouting threats at someone which may be illegal, not the book you might or might not be quoting from.
Someone who quotes from a book in a manner designed to whip up hatred may well be charged with incitement to violence or other offences. Someone who gives a lecture calmly analysing the same work should have their right to free speech protected.
Millions of people do believe in things which the CPS seems to be suggesting it is illegal to argue for in public. The latest YouGov polls on the subject suggest that about 40% of British voters support the death penalty - rising to much higher figures (and sometimes a majority) if you start asking whether it should be applied for specific and particularly horrible types of murder such as killing children.
Are the CPS seriously suggesting that the British legal system will criminalise the expression of views which millions of people support?
And there will be the most terrible trouble if you start making criminals of people for quoting the holy books of major religions. I have met a fair number of individuals who believe that every word in the bible (particularly the King James Bible) is the literal word of God.
There are millions of Jews who think the same thing of the Torah and hundreds of millions of Muslims who would say the same of the Qu'ran.
Most of these people do not go around being offensive, shouting at gay people in the streets, or otherwise threatening or attacking others.
But if you start telling them that they cannot quote passages from their holy books in public, they won't just be deeply offended. They will feel threatened, and they will feel persecuted.
I cannot begin to express how dangerous I think this is. It's going to generate fear, and in the words of a fictional leader of a religion which doesn't exist.
"Fear leads to Anger
Anger leads to Hate
Hate leads to suffering."
I hope the Ministry of Justice will pull the CPS in over this and get a clarification issued that the CPS statement in this case does not reflect the law.