For religious hated but not racial hatred there is a section 29J defence contained in the public order act 1986 as amended. What is this about and when does it apply?


16.New section 29J provides that the offences of stirring up religious hatred are not intended to limit or restrict discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult or abuse of particular religions or belief systems or lack of religion or of the beliefs and practices of those who hold such beliefs or to apply to proselytisation, evangelism or the seeking to convert people to a particular belief or to cease holding a belief.

Sorry but the above is just completely incomprehensible to me and I can't really make sense of it or parse the run on legalese/grammar. Could someone either indent into a sort of syntactic parse tree or simple explain what it means in plain English?

I suppose I have sort of a rough understanding of it but like then it's pretty generous and all encompassing and the question then becomes: what does this defence not cover, and when does it not apply?

3 Answers 3


The statutory defence is:

Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.

The intent is that Alice may say whatever she likes about [religion] (although she should be cautious about what she says of its followers - see below), she may try to persuade Bob to leave [religion], she may not shout at Bob, "You are scum because you are of [religion]."

In 2013 The Law Commission wrote of this:

2.118 It is difficult to assess the practical effect of this provision, in part because prosecutions under the religious hatred provisions are so rare. In any event, the provision cannot override the protection of articles 9 and 10 of the ECHR.176

2.119 There are no reported cases interpreting section 29J. In commentary, it has been argued that the saving would allow someone to say “Islam is a wicked evil faith” but not “Muslims are wicked and evil”, because this could stir up hatred against Muslims as a group.177 However, this can be a fine line and it may be an artificial exercise to distinguish between insulting and abusive attacks on belief systems, and similar attacks on a group of religious adherents.

Examples of such commentary can be found in the House of Commons Library Briefing Paper about The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.

Footnote 177 above points to a BBC article about the acquittal of the BNP's then-leader Nick Griffin prior to this legislation. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/bradford/6135060.stm

The Law Commission went on to say:

2.120 An example of expression which fell on the wrong side of this line is Bilal.178 In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty to an offence under section 29C. He had posted “highly abusive” anti-Hindu content on the “Islamic awakenings” website, about a college in India that had decided to ban Muslim students from wearing the burka. In his plea the defendant had claimed to have had an “emotional reaction” to what he perceived as anti-Islamic conduct by the college.

This passage cites a criminal case and appeal - you can read some details in this judgment. However, my understanding is that the defence did not argue on the basis of 29J. https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2012/959.html


Here is my best attempt:

New section 29J provides that the offences of stirring up religious hatred are not intended to:

  1. limit or restrict

    • discussion
    • criticism
    • or expressions of
      1. antipathy
      2. dislike
      3. ridicule or
      4. insult
    • or abuse


    • particular
      1. religions or
      2. belief systems
    • or lack of religion
    • or of the beliefs and practices of those who hold such beliefs
  2. or to apply to:

    • proselytisation
    • evangelism
    • or the seeking to convert people
      1. to a particular belief
      2. or to cease holding a belief.
  • Why are there two "ors" in the list following "expressions of"? Jun 28, 2022 at 20:02
  • And, what does the defence cover, or when may it not apply? Jun 28, 2022 at 20:03
  • @JosephP.: I don't know about the two "or"s. It could be parsed a little differently, with "or insult" or "or abuse" one level up. It wouldn't have any meaningful effect, as "abuse" and "expressions of abuse" are not really different. Jun 28, 2022 at 20:08
  • 1
    Perhaps: (expressions of antipathy, ridicule, dislike or insult) or (abuse) of....
    – randomhead
    Jun 28, 2022 at 20:22
  • 1
    @JosephP.: For instance I think it's pretty clear that a statement like "All members of <religion> should be killed" would not be protected by this section. Jun 28, 2022 at 21:36

Nate Eldredge did a good job at parsing the text.

My own interpretation is that two things are explicitly permitted:

  • Criticizing or speaking out against specific belief systems (including atheism) or of the practices associated with them (e.g. keeping Kosher, going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, wearing certain clothing).
  • Attempting to convert others to or from a specific belief system or unbelief.

In other words, it's ok to hate a religion or a religious practice but not to express hate toward specific people who believe in or practice that religion. So, it's ok to say "I hate Islam, all Muslims should convert to Odinism for reasons!!!11!11one. Glory to Odin the All-Father, all Muslims are going to hell!!!11!11one.", but not to go out in public and threaten Muslims intending that they fear or commit violence on the street.

In other words:

  • Hate the religion but not the people.
  • It's ok to proselytize.
  • What about attempts to dissuade someone from a particular belief system but not necessarily to adopt any particular other system in its place? Jun 28, 2022 at 21:13
  • 1
    @JosephP. that would come under "cease holding a belief". Jun 28, 2022 at 21:13
  • What would constitute verbally abusing Muslims on the street if not shouting "Islam is evil" (in the presence of Muslims)? Is the distinction in the manner eg the volume? Jun 28, 2022 at 22:23
  • 1
    @JosephP. "Verbal abuse" of people on the street is an offence in itself. Sections 4, 4A, 5 Public Order Act 1986.
    – Lag
    Jun 29, 2022 at 7:33
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    @JosephP. Broadly speaking one may shout "Islam is evil" (pedantry about alarm, harassment, distress, fear of violence etc aside); one may not shout, "you Muslims are scum" and defend oneself with 29J.
    – Lag
    Jun 29, 2022 at 8:25

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