Christian events could be banned under new Police Bill
Prayer vigils and other peaceful gatherings could be put at risk by the new Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, according to a group of faith leaders.
The Bishop of Manchester and the Presidents of the Methodist Church and Baptist Union are among 30 signatories to a letter urging the Government to rethink the Bill.
They say the new restrictions on peaceful processions and assemblies would have a chilling effect on civil liberties and those putting their faith or belief into practice.
Rev Clare Downing, the moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church explained why she signed the letter: "There are two major reasons, one of which is concern about some of what is in this Bill but the other is about the lack of time that's been given to Parliament to look at this and to be able to scrutinise it properly.
"One of the big issues is about the right to protest and the question of what sort of protest is acceptable, because the Bill talks about protests that cause a nuisance or annoyance. But actually, any protest is really designed to cause some sort of nuisance, otherwise it's ineffectual."
The Home Office says the first duty of government is to protect its citizens and communities, keep them safe and to ensure that they can get on with their daily lives peacefully and without unnecessary interference. It says the Bill will uphold the right to peaceful protest while providing the police with the necessary powers to stop disruptive protests from disproportionately infringing on the rights and freedoms of others.
Reverend Downing says it is about how the Bill is interpreted in practice.
"The concerns about this Bill come from a huge group of people, it includes Friends of the Earth and Liberty. My stance as a Christian, is that I need to support the wider community in their ability to protest peacefully because it is one of the rights that we live by and it's one of the ways in which groups in society can change things.
"I think it's about freedom to actually express dissent. Coming from a denomination where dissent is in our DNA - we're born of protest - that's really important to me. But it is about all sorts of groups being able to protest.
"The Bill doesn't say that protest isn't allowed, but it broadens what can be seen as unreasonable so widely that it feels as if anything that a particular authority doesn't like the message of, there could be reason to stop it and that feels unreasonable in so many ways.
"We recognise that there are times when all sorts of groups don't help themselves perhaps in these situations, but to put into law rules that make it so much more difficult and are likely to affect certain groups far more than others feels again, like a short-sighted route to actually improving things. We do recognise the need to change, but this Bill seems to be all about keeping order, rather than about justice and has the potential for moving away from policing by consent, which is so fundamental in the way in which this country is run."
Although Rev Downing doesn't think peaceful Christian traditions will be impacted by the Bill, she does have some concerns.
"I think that it's possible that if Christians or other groups meet in such a way that they are affecting the general public, then it is possible that that would happen. There are faith groups who at times do preach in a way, which is certainly not that peaceful or loving and perhaps we do need challenging about that. That's not just about Christians, that's about any faith group.
"I don't think that it will affect the average peaceful Good Friday Walk of Witness, for instance, but it could be questioned as to whether that is reasonable and whether it does cause a nuisance or annoyance to others. So it has the potential of being used in all sorts of circumstances.
"This is something which potentially affects Christian communities, but it affects all the communities that we belong to. And that is so important in our life as citizens of a particular country, as well as citizens of God's kingdom."
The full text of the letter can be found here: Joint Faith and Belief letter - Police Bill Alliance
In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson said:
“These new measures are designed to tackle the selfish minority of protesters who are highly disruptive and whose actions endanger the public – not religious groups going about their lawful business in a way that does not cause significant disruption to the public.”