FOOTBALL supporters could be jailed for singing God Save the Queen or Flower of Scotland under the SNP's new law to crack down on sectarianism.
Making the sign of the cross or singing Rule Britannia could also be regarded as an offence under certain circumstances once the legislation comes into force next football season.
Community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham yesterday said that such songs and gestures could be regarded as offensive acts when she was questioned about the SNP's anti-sectarian bill being fast-tracked through parliament.
She said: "A sign of a cross is not in itself offensive, but I suppose in circumstances such as Rangers and Celtic fans meeting each other on a crowded street, it could be construed as something offensive."
Ms Cunningham's failure to rule out fans being arrested for singing the National Anthem was described as "worrying" by opposition politicians, who warned that there was a "potentially explosive loophole" in the legislation.
Senior figures in the legal fraternity urged the government to adopt a "common sense" approach to its Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill.
Concern that people could be at risk of being dragged through the courts for singing the National Anthem came as police questioned whether the 500,000 the government has set aside to implement the legislation would be enough.
Conservative justice spokesman John Lamont asked the minister if she could envisage the singing of either the National Anthem or Flower of Scotland "becoming offensive behaviour within the act?" Ms Cunningham replied: "The glib answer to that is 'no, of course not'. But the problem is, for a criminal offence, it is all the facts and circumstances that surround that, that may turn them (sic] into problematic."
She added: "Perhaps it might have been more appropriate to, say, look at Rule Britannia, which I understand is one (song] frequently used on one side of the terraces. Now, I would not regard (that song] as offensive, but it is exactly why we don't start defining which songs, and listing the songs … it really is a matter of facts and the circumstances of the case whether something is or is not offensive."
She went on to suggest that Celtic fans making the sign of the cross could also be judged offensive. "I have seen hundreds of Celtic fans (behave] in a manner which I can only describe as aggressive - making signs of the cross, gesticulating across an open area to Rangers fans."
The new law is being rushed through Holyrood before the parliament rises for the summer recess in less than two weeks. The speed with which it is being examined by MSPs has raised fears among lawyers that it will not be scrutinised properly.
The bill outlaws religious, homophobic and racist abuse by fans at, and on the way to and from football matches. It is also designed to crack down on fans spreading bigoted abuse on the internet. Under the legislation, those found guilty of the new offences of "offensive behaviour" or "threatening communications" can expect sentences ranging from a 40 fixed penalty to a five-year prison sentence or unlimited fine. The bill was introduced by the SNP government to tackle the bigotry that has marred football matches for decades, but which plumbed new depths recently. Scotland's sectarian problem - which previously has seen controversy surrounding Paul Gascoigne of Rangers imitating flute-playing Orangemen and rows over Arthur Boruc of Celtic crossing himself - reached dangerous levels last season.
Parcel bombs were sent to Celtic manager Neil Lennon, his QC Paul McBride and former MSP Trish Godman, a Celtic fan.
The proposed law does not include a list of proscribed songs. But Ms Cunningham suggested that even God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia or Flower of Scotland could be deemed offensive in certain contexts.
Her comments led to opposition politicians claiming that the new law could criminalise people for singing the National Anthem or crossing themselves. Mr Lamont said: "I am now very concerned about how this legislation might be interpreted. For example, if you are a republican Scot, could you then claim that someone singing God Save The Queen is a sectarian attack on you? If you are English, could you then claim that someone singing Flower of Scotland is a sectarian attack on you? The minister did not rule out this possibility, which is very worrying."
Mr Lamont added: "We have said all along that everyone wants to beat sectarianism, but laws must not be rushed … if the situation is not resolved quickly, then we will consider putting an amendment down to clear up this potentially explosive loophole."
Labour justice spokesman James Kelly added: "The minister's inability to clarify what the bill does in relation to these matters begs the question how police officers will be able to enforce the legislation in just over a month's time."
The Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Devine, agreed that any sign, song or picture can be abused. He said: "The minister is correct in saying that in certain circumstances such gestures can be provocative.
"In themselves, the sign of the cross and the National Anthem are noble and honourable expressions, but they can be manipulated for evil intent. Those who intentionally and malevolently exploit and corrupt such eminent symbols should be held to account."
Ms Cunningham said that the aspect of the law designed to tackle internet hate crimes would also apply to offensive graffiti, T-shirts, posters and recorded speech.When asked whether it would also apply to tattoos, she said: "I suppose, arguably, if someone tattooed a death threat all over their body, then it is falling within the ambit of this kind of communication. But I would caution the member against reductio ad absurdum (reducing to an absurdity]."
The cost of the new legislation also came in for criticism with Les Gray of the Scottish Police Federation saying the government estimates were "way off the mark".
Mr Gray said implementing the new legislation properly would require more officers at football grounds, on supporter buses and in pubs.
The Scottish Government has said it does not envisage "significant additional costs" associated with the introduction of the laws, estimating they would not exceed 500,000 in 2011-12. It estimated costs in future years of between 700,000 and 1.5 million.
But Mr Gray said that 700,000 would not "even scratch the surface of what is required".