Catholics are pressing for further changes to Scotland's controversial hate crime bill amid a last-minute consultation.

The Scottish Parliament's justice committee gave the public just four days to respond to the consultation, which ended at 10 a.m. local time on Monday.

Scotland's Catholic Parliamentary Office issued an urgent appeal on Friday to Catholics to share their views on the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. The legislation has reached the third stage of the parliamentary process, the last step before it becomes law.

The Catholic Parliamentary Office, founded by the Scottish bishops in 1991, said that it remained "deeply concerned" by proposed drafts of the section of the bill relating to freedom of expression.

Humza Yousaf, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, asked for comments on four options for the freedom of expression clause.

The Catholic Parliamentary Office said that the clause was "extremely important" as it would affect the right to free speech.

"We have argued from the beginning for a strong freedom of expression clause in relation to religion, religious beliefs and practices, and the position of not holding religious beliefs, and we are glad that this has been included in options 1 and 2," it said.

"However, we remain deeply concerned at the lack of similarly strong terms for the protected characteristics of sexual orientation and transgender identity. This weakness is common across all four options."

It continued: "The beliefs which underpin these characteristics raise moral questions that are hotly disputed in a way similar to religion, and free and open debate must be allowed as must the right to disagree."

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"There should be no threat of prosecution for expressing the belief that, for example, there are only two sexes or genders; that a man cannot become a woman and vice versa; or that marriage can only be between one man and one woman." 

"Further, nobody ought to be criminalized for using a person's birth name or pronoun."

The office encouraged Catholics taking part in the consultation to emphasize four points.

First, that discussion or criticism of "sexual conduct and practices" and of marriage which "concerns the sex of the parties to the marriage" should be given clear protection in the freedom of expression clause under the protected characteristic of "sexual orientation."

Second, that no one should be criminalized for expressing the belief that biological sex is immutable.

Third, that the bill should clearly acknowledge "the belief that sex is immutable, that there are only two sexes or genders, and the freedom to use birth names and pronouns."

Fourth, that the justice committee should avoid creating "a hierarchy of protected characteristics." The Catholic Parliamentary Office said that, as the bill presently stands, "religion is being held to a much higher standard of accountability than any other protected characteristic."

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The Scottish Government introduced the bill in April 2020 in response to an independent review of hate crime laws led by retired judge Lord Bracadale. The government says that the bill modernizes, consolidates, and extends existing hate crime legislation. It also abolishes the offense of blasphemy.

Ministers have indicated that they wish to see the bill pass into law within weeks. The Scottish Parliament as a whole would need to insert the amendments into the bill as it has already passed its first and second stages, reported The Herald newspaper.

Scotland's bishops sounded the alarm over the bill in July. In a submission to the justice committee, they expressed concern that the legislation could criminalize the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

The bill creates a new crime of stirring up hatred against any of the protected characteristics covered by the bill, which include race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity.

Commenting on the bishops' submission, Anthony Horan, the director of Scotland's Catholic Parliamentary Office, said: "Whilst acknowledging that stirring up of hatred is morally wrong and supporting moves to discourage and condemn such behavior, the bishops have expressed concerns about the lack of clarity around definitions and a potentially low threshold for committing an offense, which they fear, could lead to a 'deluge of vexatious claims.'" 

He continued: "A new offense of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church inflammatory. The Catholic Church's understanding of the human person, including the belief that sex and gender are not fluid and changeable, could fall foul of the new law."

The bill also faced criticism from secular free speech campaigners, including the comedian Rowan Atkinson, who signed an open letter in August saying that the bill "creates stirring up offenses without any intent being examined; merely that the words, action, or artwork might do so."

Yousaf agreed in September to change the bill so that it would only cover offenses where the stirring up of hatred was intentional.

But following a hearing in October, critics said they worried that the law could apply to speech uttered within a private dwelling if the speaker intended to stir up hatred.

Christian leaders have appealed for further changes to the bill. An "unprecedented alliance" of Catholic and Evangelical leaders called earlier this month for more time for "detailed consideration" of the bill.

"The Parliament now has approximately four weeks to complete the passage of the bill. This is extraordinarily tight and risks inadequate and ill-thought-through legislation being passed," they wrote in a Feb. 12 letter to Yousaf.  

"No workable solutions to issues of freedom of expression have so far been suggested. If no such solutions can be found, we hope the Scottish Government will now consider withdrawing the stirring up hatred offenses in Part 2 of the bill to allow more detailed consideration and discussion and to ensure freedom of expression provisions, which enshrine free and open debate, are afforded the scrutiny they require."