How to refrain from offending ‘religious sensibilities’

The new law allows for prison sentences of up to three years for those who offend Russian citizens' religious feelings. Source: Reuters

The new law allows for prison sentences of up to three years for those who offend Russian citizens' religious feelings. Source: Reuters

In the wake of a new law that punishes the feelings of religious believers, a lawyer defines the subtle difference between being insulting and speaking one’s mind.

From now on, Russian law enforcement authorities will need to be conversant with religious matters and be able to determine motives. The new law protecting the ‘rights of religious believers’ establishes serious punishment for anyone offending ‘religious sensibilities,’ while hooligans will get away with just a small fine. In rare cases, linguistic or cultural evaluation will be required.

According to Vladislav Grib, member of the Public Chamber of Russia and the Presidium of the Association of Lawyers of Russia, the police already can distinguish between insults and hooliganism.

Mr Grib, is it possible that the new law might eventually impinge on the rights of atheists?

The Snow Maiden
Vladislav Grib. Source: Kommersant

The law will have no effect on the opportunity to express one’s view of the world and make it public. Among other things, it in no way prohibits atheist views. People will still be allowed to speak their mind, whether in writing or verbally, but it is important that they only express their opinion and are not insulting. There is a subtle difference between the two but we can all distinguish between derogatory statements and opinions, especially if a statement makes use of obscenities. Outrageous behaviour, shouting in churches, writing on church walls or tombstones can also be interpreted as an offence.

How can we distinguish between insulting the sensibilities of believers and common hooliganism?

If insulting statements are made in a church or in front of a large group of people, it will be ranked specifically as insulting the sensibilities of religious believers. The same applies to obscene writings. The purpose of such statements, the aim of being deliberately and blatantly insulting, will constitute the main element of the crime, which will trigger criminal responsibility. When investigating cases of religious insults, a linguistic evaluation might be in order, but it will hardly be necessary with obscenities, since their interpretation is unambiguous. For instance, we already have definitions for vandalism, hooliganism and other things, so the law will most likely be practiced in conjunction with other similar laws. Where a literary work is involved, a literary evaluation may be required.

In fact, the Russian Criminal Code already defines insults but, in this perspective, it will be regarded as an insult to a religious belief rather than a person. Freedom of worship and protection of religion are constitutional rights.

What has changed then?

Previously, we were able to punish people for insulting faith but the actions were treated as hooliganism and earned a fine of a few hundred

roubles. In this sense, it was about public order rather than protecting the sensibilities of believers. Yet insulting someone in the street and walking into a church and crying out obscenities in front of dozens of people gathered there are vastly different offences, since, in the latter case, the offender is not just acting mischievously, but intends to insult the sensibilities of believers. The law now distinguishes between hooliganism without special intent and hooliganism with the intention of offending religious sensibility. The measure will also be instrumental in resolving inter-confessional conflicts, when religious people use inappropriate means to prove their point.

Will policemen actually be able to tell insults from hooliganism?

Cases of insulting the sensibilities of religious believers are fairly complicated and the police and the courts will certainly need more explanations. The crucial thing here is to determine motives and the police will also have to have some background knowledge about religions. It will gradually sink in as the law is applied. It will most likely take two years or so to collect the initial data on practice of the law and then we will summarise it and even amend the law, if necessary. 

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