Hatred on Religious Grounds and the Risk of Double Standards

Montserrat Gas-Aixendri is a full professor of law and religion at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain).

In the January 2024 report Hatred on the Basis of Religion or Belief, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Nazila Ghanea urges stronger actions to tackle hate speech, encouraging dialogue between different faiths and cultures and safeguarding religious groups while respecting human rights. She emphasizes the importance of governments addressing religious-based hatred in a manner consistent with human rights principles to ensure effectiveness. In this vein, the report’s final recommendations urge the enactment of comprehensive laws against discrimination aimed at preventing and combating hatred motivated by religion or beliefs (para. 62(f)).

Statutory bans on hate speech leave democratic societies with a Hobson’s choice. If those societies ban incitement of hatred against some vulnerable groups, they will inevitably face parallel demands for protection of other groups. Such laws inevitably tend to create two tiers of citizens—those who are protected from offensive speech and those left unprotected from equally offensive speech. This implies, or at least suggests, that certain vulnerable groups are given preferential treatment over others.[1] Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has referred to the risk of employing double standards in the application of human rights. This point appears particularly relevant when discussing the regulation of hate speech based on religion or beliefs.

The Threat of Hate Speech Double Standards

Hate speech against religious groups seems to be particularly vulnerable to the application of double standards. In March 2015, for example, a British court found street preacher Michael Overd guilty under the Public Order Act for publicly citing the Bible while condemning homosexuality as sinful. Interestingly, the court acquitted him under the same Act for referring to the Prophet Muhammad as a pedophile. If criticism of religion is accepted as legally permissible, it seems logical that, based on the principle of reciprocity, critical religious speech against certain social values that conflict with the tenets imposed by faith should also be accepted. Instead, when applying the norm to real-life circumstances, courts tend to apply stricter criteria to the restriction of anti-religious hate speech compared to other types of hate speech targeting gender, race, or sexual orientation.

The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) emphasizes that the exercise of freedom of religion and belief necessitates an environment characterized by tolerance and respect. Such an environment should be devoid of attacks that could dissuade individuals from expressing their beliefs without fear of intimidation. This principle aligns with the foundational principles of all fundamental freedoms. From this perspective, assaults on religion are not inherently different from assaults based on sex, race, or national origin. Therefore, ensuring protection against discrimination based on religious beliefs is fundamental to upholding the principles of equality and nondiscrimination enshrined in international human rights law. In matters of hate speech, what matters is not so much the foreseeable effectiveness of the hate speech in question but rather the fact that a democratic society cannot allow and must make every effort to firmly eradicate certain behaviors due to their intolerance.[2]

Hate Speech and Offensive Speech Are Not the Same

The ECtHR also draws a distinction between hate speech and offensive speech, delineating criticism from gratuitous offense and aligning the latter with hate speech. (See Handyside v. the United Kingdom.) The defining feature of hate speech, as distinct from other forms of offensive speech, is its capacity to perpetuate prejudice, marginalization, and discrimination. This reenactment of harm is what makes hate speech uniquely harmful. Therefore, it is necessary to reiterate the need to analyze the wording, intention, and structure of the text and the context in which it is conveyed, knowing how to differentiate between “speech against ideas” and “speech against individuals or groups.”

We should avoid turning human rights into weapons against other human rights. Attempts to limit or penalize mere expressions of opinion or belief through antidiscrimination and hate speech laws should be regarded as a mistake. It would be an inappropriate limitation of freedom of religion and belief to attempt to censor or criminalize religious expression, whether by ministers or religious representatives, or by ordinary believers, presuming a discriminatory intention.[3]

A case from early 2024 illustrates this phenomenon. The Finnish Prosecutor General charged Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen with hate speech against homosexuals. The charges were brought after Räsänen voiced her opinion regarding homosexuality based on interpretations of Bible texts. There is no evidence to suggest that she has ever promoted violence or animosity toward the homosexual community—indeed, she has consistently affirmed her support for the dignity and human rights of homosexuals. The Finnish Evangelical Alliance has since issued a statement to the effect that freedom to publicly discuss teachings based on the Bible should be upheld. While Räsänen was unanimously acquitted in November 2023, the state prosecutor has appealed the case to the Finnish Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the appeal.

While Räsänen’s case is still ongoing, it is worth remembering that in hate speech cases initiated by public officials the legal process itself can already serve as a punishment, as it often brings reputational risks to the accused person notwithstanding the final result. This requires a careful approach to the initiation of such processes. Moreover, determining the vulnerable party cannot be pre-established. As noted by Parris, certain groups may be so vulnerable as to necessitate legal protection from hateful speech, but today the assumption that a specific group always falls into this category cannot be taken for granted.

Expressing Opinions with Respect

As suggested in  Special Rapporteur’s report, the effectiveness of criminalizing hate speech is limited and falls short of having a transformative impact. It may also prove counterproductive, cultivating an environment conducive to further hatred (para. 38). Intolerance in the name of tolerance remains intolerance. Ironically, some efforts to condemn intolerance result in intolerance toward those with divergent opinions and even attempt to deny basic rights to those deemed intolerant.

The more pluralism and diversity are experienced by human societies, the greater the need to learn how to address with civility the concomitant disagreements regarding one another. A basic respect, which should guide the way in which we cope with ongoing disagreements, competitions, and conflicts, will become apparent. In the long run, if duly managed, protecting both freedom from nondiscrimination and freedom of religion or belief should contribute to creating a culture of mutual respect instead of mutual distancing.

Criticism of religion or belief is legitimate as long as it is aimed at contributing to social debate and increasing citizen participation in a constructive manner, rather than seeking to destructively discredit, mock, offend, or ridicule. Religious groups should promote respectful discourse, avoiding gratuitous insults. Therefore, references to gender identity issues should be clearly connected to the moral doctrine or teachings being conveyed by religions. Other groups should avoid gratuitous mockery and insults toward religious morals and beliefs. The existence of groups like Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a U.S.-based protest and street performance organization that uses drag and religious imagery to satirize religion vis-à-vis issues of sex, gender, and morality) could be an example of what, in my view, does not help to this cause.


A social environment of free discussion and expression, including the expression of beliefs, is essential for democracy. When addressing various forms of hate speech, it is essential to apply consistent standards across different real-life conflict scenarios. Regardless of motivation, hate speech is universally unacceptable. Therefore, it is important to ensure that all groups make an equitable effort to demonstrate respect.

Double standards in the implementation of hate speech categories could lead to a dual mistake: they suggest that certain groups deserve greater protection than others, from which one can only infer that new inequalities arise, potentially equal to or more severe than those being addressed.

While democratic states should unequivocally condemn hatred directed at vulnerable groups whenever and wherever it emerges, it is not clear that they can suppress such hatred while sending inegalitarian signals. Irrespective of the position adopted regarding the relationship between hate speech and freedom of expression, an issue that seems essential when addressing the various types of hate speech is the need to analyze them by applying the same standards to real situations of conflict.


[1] Thomas M. Keck, Hate Speech and Double Standards, 1(1) Const. Stud. 95, 95–121 (2016).

[2] Javier Martínez-Torrón, Hate speech, libertad de expresión y sentimientos religiosos,  92(363) Estudios Eclesiásticos 749, 749–767 (2017).

[3] Francisca Pérez-Madrid, Consideraciones sobre el hate preaching, in Discurso de odio y creencias 157, 157–182 (Francisca Pérez-Madrid ed., Thomson Reuters Aranzadi 2022).

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