I was astonished to learn that in Britain you can be sentenced to five years in prison for using the technical jargon of a particular religious denomination in public. This is based on this poster:

Poster warning "Use sectarian language on the train and who knows where you'll end up… You could get a 5 year prison sentence and a criminal record"

To my understanding of the word "sectarian", this means that if a Catholic mentions the sacrament of reconciliation, a Jew speaks of a bar mitzvah, a Muslim discusses the sevenfold circumambulation of the Kaaba, a Lutheran talks about the ninety-five theses, or a member of the Church of England wonders who will be the next archbishop of Canterbury, that's a criminal offence if done while the speaker is a passenger on a train.

This makes me wonder if in Britain the word sectarian means something very different from what I've always thought it meant. Then I found this Wikipedia article, which says:

Sectarianism is a form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. Common examples are denominations of a religion, ethnic identity, class, or region for citizens of a state and factions of a political movement.

I would never have guessed that that's what anyone means by that word. I live in Minnesota, a state whose constitution forbids the use of taxpayers' money for the support of "sectarian schools", and that simply means schools with a particular religious affiliation.

Should this usage be classified as a regionalism?

  • 2
    You seem to be asking for opinions. You already have a dictionary definition. – Mick Nov 15 '17 at 4:37
  • 2
    @Mick : Is it forbidden to ask whether a particular word is a regionalism? – Michael Hardy Nov 15 '17 at 4:43
  • You have a point. Close vote retracted. – Mick Nov 15 '17 at 4:44
  • sorry it means divisive – Gary Nov 15 '17 at 4:46
  • 1
    @Mick : But it didn't say "racist"; it said "sectarian", which I would normally take to mean pertaining to a particular religious denomination. If a Greek Orthodox Christian says a bishop granted him permission to remarry after his wife's death, as a matter of "church economy", then the use of the term "church economy" would be "sectarian language" as I usually understand that term, since it's a term used in the Eastern Orthodox church and not in (most?) other churches. There's no racism or bigotry or disrespect to other religious denominations in that. That appears to be what is punishable. – Michael Hardy Nov 15 '17 at 5:36

Just to add to Nigel J's answer and particularly that it is a regionalism.

The Scottish Government have an Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland. This, in itself, shows that they feel sectarianism is something to be tackled.

In 2015 they came up with the following "working definition" of sectarianism:

Sectarianism in Scotland is a complex of perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, actions and structures, at personal and communal levels, which originate in religious difference and can involve a negative mixing of religion with politics, sporting allegiance and national identifications. It arises from a distorted expression of identity and belonging. It is expressed in destructive patterns of relating which segregate, exclude, discriminate against or are violent towards a specified religious other, with significant personal and social consequences.

see section 3.9 of the interim report

By 2015 they proposed a new one:

Sectarianism in Scotland is a mixture of perceptions, attitudes, actions, and structures that involves overlooking, excluding, discriminating against or being abusive or violent towards others on the basis of their perceived Christian denominational background. This perception is always mixed with other factors such as, but not confined to, politics, football allegiance and national identity.

see Section 5 of the 2015 report

Without delving into what these mean, it does show that the word "sectarianism" is used in Scotland, especially, in a particular sense, and that even the Scottish government doesn't quite know what. It refers to a culture dependent on people seeing themselves as members of either the Protestant community or the (Roman) Catholic community, and to generations of rivalry, at least, between them.

In Glasgow particularly Rangers is supported by Protestants, and Celtic by Roman Catholics. There are wider loyalties beyond Scotland to other parts of the British Isles, with Rangers fans often waving Union Jacks and Celtic preferring Republic of Ireland flags.

Supporters of Rangers and Celtic have many traditional songs, some of which contain phrases which most people would consider offensive such as "F**k the Pope", or Queen, as the case may be. Others do not contain anything particularly offensive in themselves, but if sung on a train, by a group of young men or teenage boys, for example, may result in a response from another group, and while this may be good-natured, it often isn't, and can end violently. Even if it doesn't, it can be un-nerving to other passengers.

The Scottish Government claim that this law is intended to reduce such happenings, but opposition parties are generally opposed to it and it is under review. While poor relations between Protestants and Catholics, and football violence, or violence at other community events (e.g. Orange Parades involving Protestants), is a problem; the Scottish Government is pro-independence and has been accused of being uncomfortable with loyalties beyond Scotland.

It does not prevent two friends discussing their divergent theological perspectives; and this particular rule does not apply in England, Wales or Ireland. but only in Scotland.


The posters on Scottish trains relate to the Offensive Behaviour Act which is designed to tackle football violence.

As @NigelJ has said, much of the issue surrounding football is linked to religion. In Scotland, this conflict, which is as much cultural and political as it is religious, is archetypally seen in the Central belt where support for the football teams collectively and colloquially known as 'The Old Firm' is traditionally aligned on Roman Catholic support for Celtic and protestant support for Rangers.

The antagonism between these branches of christianity is not confined to football and also accretes round events like Orange Walks and is underscored to some extent by segregated education.

This divide between the communities represented by the different branches of Christianity is widely described as 'Sectarian', to the extent that this is the default understanding of the word in Scotland. Sectarianism in Glasgow, the central belt and Scotland generally is a wide subject which I will not attempt to tackle in detail, but the wikipedia link and associated Talk page gives a decent grounding.

'Sectarian language' as referred to in the poster, is therefore to be understood as language deliberately intended to antagonise and provoke members of the 'opposing' community and will be understood in that light by those to whom it is relevant.

  • (+1) @Spagirl As a boy I used to watch from the end of my road as the fleet of buses trooped to the Orange Walks, as per your link. The guys on the footplates of the buses carried truncheons. – Nigel J Nov 15 '17 at 15:07
  • 2
    I grew up in Cumbernauld, when I was in Primary school it was not unusual for other kids to confront you and demand to know what religion you were, with the 'wrong' answer putting you at risk of a battering. Luckily for me my inquisitors had never heard of Methodism and generally wandered off confused. – Spagirl Nov 15 '17 at 15:11
  • I never had that myself. But, at times, I had to watch what postcode I was walking through so that I knew 'who rules'. If confronted, one had to know whether it was the Cumbie or the Bundy or whatever. Nasty stuff. – Nigel J Nov 15 '17 at 15:16
  • @NigelJ All our graffiti said 'Lemoland', as a kid I never really questioned what it meant, it was just what graffiti always said, what graffiti was, but I've assumed since that it was a territorial gang claim. – Spagirl Nov 15 '17 at 15:23

The posters have been set up by Scottish Police in order to quell criminal behaviour on public transport by rival football supporters. In Scotland, there is significant support for particular teams based on religion, and I am not even going to bother to mention the religious groups involved.

There is a long history to this. I lived in Glasgow as a boy (50 years ago) and I remember going to a Rangers/Celtic cup final with my brother - now deceased - where the teams did not change over at half time and supporters were segregated to opposite ends of the pitch.

This was mostly to protect the relevant goalkeepers from being pelted with bottles. What on earth my older brother was doing taking me to such an event I cannot think ; we were lucky to get home in one piece. I was still living in Glasgow, not far from the Hampden stadium, when the 1969 event mentioned on Wikipedia took place.

As a boy I remember preachers in Glasgow on the streets - it was a common sight. These days, they are bated by hecklers to speak about matters which it is now illegal to mention in public and I know of one American Preacher who was prosecuted and decided to plead guilty and pay a fine rather than go through lengthy criminal court proceedings and delay his necessary return to the USA. What a way to treat guests to our country.

In that situation also, Police are suppressing potential crowd trouble by showing zero tolerance to verbal exchanges.

So, yes, I would agree that this particular usage of the word 'sectarian' is very localised indeed, since Police are really showing zero tolerance to that which precipitates criminal behaviour, targeting the verbal exchanges which could be a preliminary to violence.

Action on Sectarianism

Scotland - No place for Sectarianism

Football Violence - Scotland

  • "they are bated by hecklers to speak about matters which it is now illegal to mention in public" What kind of matters are those? – Michael Hardy Nov 15 '17 at 6:45
  • @MichaelHardy There is now quite a list, in the UK. Anyone wanting to be a street preacher has to give considerable thought to how the many possible questions can be answered without achieving a criminal record. – Nigel J Nov 15 '17 at 6:49
  • 3
    @MichaelHardy The poster cited is not from England. The prisons mentioned are all in Scotland, and even although it says "British Transport Police" be aware that England and Britain are not the same thing and should not be used as synonyms for each other. The law used was introduced in Scotland only because of the special hatred certain sects of Christianity have for each other (like in Northern Ireland, which is why Irish comedian Dara O'Briain calls Glasgow "Belfast Light") – Colin Mackay Nov 15 '17 at 13:29
  • 1
    @MichaelHardy people who seem to be of the "The World Has Gone Mad!" mentality often twist stuff like this. Eg, "You can get arrested for doing something and get up to 5 years" gets turned into "If you do X you will get 5 years in prison". In this case they've made a further logical error by thinking that "sectarian speech" means "Criticising the church of England". They (the people who post this sort of thing) are on a spectrum between disingenuous rabble-rousers and actual idiots. See also "School children not allowed to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "Straight bananas" (never happened) – Max Williams Nov 15 '17 at 14:37
  • 1
    It would have been better to say 'sectarian insults' – Kate Bunting Nov 15 '17 at 17:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.