MPs debate Bill which threatens free speech

Mon, 26 Jan 2009

MPs will today debate a justice Bill which contains plans to delete a free speech protection added last year to a controversial ‘gay hate’ law.

The free speech protection was added last May to the new offence of ‘incitement to homophobic hatred’ after a late night victory in the House of Lords.

It makes it clear that criticising homosexual practice or urging people to refrain from such conduct will not, in itself, be a crime.

The protection was included in the offence because of fears the law could be used as an excuse to silence religious views about sexual behaviour.

However, clause 58 of the Government’s new Coroners and Justice Bill, which has its Second Reading in the House of Commons today, seeks to remove this protection.

The offence of inciting homophobic hatred catches any words or behaviour which are threatening and intended to stir up hatred. It carries a maximum seven year prison sentence.

The wording of the free speech protection, added by former Home Secretary Lord Waddington, is as follows: “for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred”.

In 2006, a more wide-ranging free speech amendment was added to a parallel law against inciting religious hatred, but no such attempt has been made by the Government to remove it.

The Commons debate will start no earlier than 3.30pm and will debate the general principles of the whole Bill, of which deleting the free speech protection is just one clause.

Mike Judge, Head of Communications at The Christian Institute, said: “In theory, if the protection was removed Christians would remain free to express their beliefs about homosexual practice.

“The law ought only to catch the use of threatening words or behaviour which have the intention of stirring up hatred. No genuine Christian should find themselves falling foul of that.

“But we believe a free speech protection should nevertheless remain attached to the offence to clarify an area of the law which could easily be used as a pretext for silencing Christian views on sexual behaviour.

“Given the level of intimidation faced by Christians on the issue of homosexual practice, an explicit free speech protection is a reasonable approach.”

During last year’s parliamentary debates on the homophobic hatred offence, a number of cases were highlighted to show the importance of a free speech protection.

Miguel Hayworth, 2008

A Christian street preacher in Manchester was silenced, taken into the back of a police van, questioned and detained for over an hour following a complaint of ‘homophobia’.

Miguel Hayworth had been publicly reading from the Bible, from Romans 1:17-32, when a member of the public complained. The officers later released Mr Hayworth and he was permitted to continue preaching.

Stephen Green, 2006

Stephen Green, a Christian campaigner, was arrested for handing out evangelistic tracts at a gay pride festival in Cardiff. Police admitted that he had not behaved in a violent or aggressive manner, but confirmed that officers arrested him because the leaflets contained biblical quotes about homosexuality.

Mr Green was held at a police station for four hours, questioned, charged and eventually committed for trial. The case against Mr Green was subsequently dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, 2006

A Member of the Scottish Parliament asked Strathclyde Police to investigate remarks made by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow.

The Archbishop had defended the institution of marriage and criticised civil partnerships in a church service.

Lynette Burrows, 2005

Lynette Burrows, an author and family-values campaigner, took part in a radio talk show about civil partnerships for homosexuals. Mrs Burrows said she did not believe that adoption by two gay men would be best for a child. Subsequently, a policewoman telephoned Mrs Burrows to speak to her about her comments.

The police officer said a ‘homophobic incident’ had been reported against her and that record of it would be kept by police. Mrs Burrows felt that the policewoman was pressurising her even though she had committed no crime.

Joe and Helen Roberts, 2005

Christian pensioners, Joe and Helen Roberts, were interrogated by police in 2005 because they had expressed their opposition to their local council spending public money on ‘gay rights’ projects.

After launching legal action, the couple eventually won an apology and damages from Lancashire Police and Wyre Borough Council. The police and the council also changed their procedures to avoid making the same mistake again.

Cambridge Christian Union, 2004

The Christian Union of the University of Cambridge was reported to the police following its distribution of St John’s gospel to students and hosting an evangelistic meeting where the Dean of Sydney Cathedral put forward “a traditional biblical view on homosexuality”.

The Bishop of Chester, 2003

In November 2003 the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Forster, was investigated by Cheshire Constabulary after he told his local newspaper that some homosexuals re-orientated to heterosexuality with the help of therapy.

A complaint was made to the police that his remarks were a ‘hate crime’, and the Bishop was berated in the media by the Chief Constable. The police passed a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, who decided not to prosecute because the Bishop had not broken any “current” laws.

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