Anti-sectarian law worries Scottish church leaders

By Alex Stevenson

The SNP's bid to tackle sectarianism in time for the new football season is prompting concern from senior Scottish religious figures.

Legislation introduced to the Scottish parliament today will be rushed through in just two weeks, before the new season begins on July 23rd.

It will extend the maximum sentence for those guilty of sectarian hate crimes from six months to five years.

Controls around football matches, where most sectarianism takes place, will be extended to cover travel to and from games, as well as places where matches are broadcast like pubs.

A second offence will deal with "more ugly manifestations", Scottish minister Roseanna Cunningham told the Today programme.

The offensive behaviour at football and threatening communications (Scotland) bill seeks to tackle the problem which first minister Alex Salmond has described as a "parasite".

The Rt Rev David Arnott, moderator of the Church of Scotland, said he was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion – but felt that civic Scotland was not being given much time to give its consent.

"We remain nervous about this haste in which this bill being rushed through parliament apparently in time for the start of the football season," the Scotsman newspaper quoted him as saying.

"Whilst we are not against the ideas in this bill, we remain unconvinced of the wisdom of this approach."

Catholic Church spokesman Peter Kearney told the Herald newspaper he was concerned about the "truncated timescale".

He pointed out that football-related incidents accounted for just 15% of sectarian offences in Scotland.

Media attention has focused on football grounds, however. The problem is at its greatest in the rivalry between Glasgow's Celtic and Rangers teams: Celtic manager Neil Lennon was the recipient of suspected bombs earlier this year.