A new law in Scotland related to “hate crimes” that has garnered criticism from the country’s Catholic bishops is set to come into effect April 1 after being passed into law nearly two years ago. 

The new law — which the Scottish government says modernizes and “extends” existing hate crime law — creates a new crime of stirring up hatred against any of the protected groups covered by the bill. Covered characteristics include race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity.

Stirring up racial hatred by threatening, abusive, or insulting behavior was already illegal under Scotland’s Public Order Act 1986, but the bill expands the law to other protected categories. 

Specifically, the bill criminalizes threatening or abusive behavior based on a person’s age, disability, race, color, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins, religion or perceived religious affiliation, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or variations in sex characteristics. 

Controversially, the bill does not include “sex” as a protected characteristic. The bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on March 11, 2021, and became law on April 23, 2021. 

The bill has generated considerable controversy since the Scottish government first introduced the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill during April 2020 in response to an independent review of hate crime laws led by Alastair Campbell, Lord Bracadale, a retired judge. Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s former justice minister and later first minister, has shepherded the bill through Parliament. 

In a statement issued July 29, 2020, the Catholic bishops of Scotland argued that the bill could lead to censorship of Catholic teaching if documents such as the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church are deemed “inflammatory material.” The bishops also noted that pronouncements of Catholic teaching on sex and gender “might be perceived by others as an abuse of their own, personal worldview and likely to stir up hatred.”

In 2021, the Catholic Parliamentary Office, a public policy agency of the Scottish bishops, said that it remained “deeply concerned” by proposed drafts of the section of the bill relating to freedom of expression, especially a lack of protections for the expression of the Christian view of sexual orientation and transgender identity. 

“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,” the office stated at the time. 

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The current text of the bill includes a provision meant to protect religious freedom of expression, stating that “behavior or material is not to be taken to be threatening or abusive solely on the basis that it involves or includes … discussion or criticism relating to, or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, or insult towards … religious beliefs or practices.” 

The BBC reported that Police Scotland has pledged to investigate every hate crime complaint it receives, even though last week the force said it would no longer investigate every “low level” crime in Scotland, including some cases of theft.

A January 2023 report from the Scottish government found that nearly half of all religion-aggravated hate crime reports (47%) in the country in 2020-21 and 2021-22 were against Catholics.