A Bill to outlaw religious spivs

People who care about religion should want to protect it from charlatans and spivs

published in www.politics.co.uk  23 March 2012

Have you ever seen or experienced something that made you say “there should be a law against it?”

I did some weeks ago and I was so angry about it I wrote the law myself. The trigger was a free newspaper in my local bus from a local faith organisation. It promised “deliverance from curses” of all kinds and divine intervention in the lives of believers. To this purpose it peddled a ‘miracle pack’, made up of commonplace ingredients including salt and water and olive oil, for £10. Last month the broadcasting arm of this church was fined heavily by Ofcom, over broadcast testimonies to the healing power of its ‘miracle soap’.

I had thought this kind of thing had been stamped out in Thomas Cromwell’s crackdown on religious racketeers for Henry VIII (Cromwell thought that their money should go to himself and the King). Not a bit. The sale of miracles has become a very successful modern business, which preys particularly on poor and vulnerable people. Within half an hour’s walk of my home in south-east London I can find dozens of churches and pastors promising some form of divine intervention in the lives of their faithful. They may not be as outrageous my local faith group, but some of them are clearly making substantial sums from their adherents. Brecht once wrote: “Why rob a bank when you can found one?” Today he could write: “Why found a bank when you can found a church?”

One may believe in the existence of miracles and other forms of divine intervention, but that does not mean believing that people should charge money for claiming to procure them. In the many accounts of miracles in the Old and the New Testaments, I cannot remember anyone presenting a bill to the beneficiaries. Indeed, Jesus got very angry with those nice money-changers in the temple, and committed a serious public order offence when he attacked their legitimate businesses.

I now think that there should be a specific law to stop miracle peddlers and anyone else using divine intervention as a sales aid. My effort is below. I have tried to catch everybody who might obtain, or try to obtain, anything of value from another person with a promise or threat with any supernatural origin – not just the sellers of ‘miracle packs’ but also the people who secure money or property from the dying with promises of divine favour in the next life. I have chosen the same penalty as for major offences of fraud.

My bill is sitting in two ministers’ intrays: Norman Lamb MP, the new consumer protection minister, and Nick Hurd MP, who has the ghastly responsibility of being the minister for the ‘big society’. So far it has stunned them into silence. Like other politicians of all parties, they may be frightened of offending any religious group, but that should not make them resist my bill. People who care about religion should want to protect it from charlatans and spivs. If a new law frightened any religious leader or sect away from promising blessings or curses in exchange for money, so much the better.

Anyway, if there is any brave MP or peer looking for a private member’s bill – it’s all yours.

Sale Of Supernatural Intervention (Prohibition) Bill 2012

An act to prohibit the obtaining of anything of value with the promise or threat of supernatural intervention, and for connected purposes

(1) it shall be an offence for any person to solicit or receive money or property or any valuable consideration with the promise or expectation of any form of supernatural intervention or favour;

(2) an offence under section (1) of this Act may be committed when a person sells or attempts to sell any goods or services with such a promise or expectation;

(3) an offence under section (1) of this Act may be committed when a person solicits or receives money or any valuable consideration with any threat of supernatural intervention or disfavour if payment is refused, delayed or reduced;

(4) without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, in this Act the expressions “supernatural intervention”, “supernatural favour” and “supernatural disfavour” include a) the performance of miracles b) the procuring of any change by supernatural intervention in the life of any person c) the acquisition or loss of grace or merit in the view of any supernatural being or any form of favourable or unfavourable treatment after death.

(5) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable –
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding twelve months or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or to both; and
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or to a fine or to both.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist and a former adviser to Denis Healey. Some nasty religious spivs figure in his latest novel The Network.

23. March 2012 by rkh
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