- In 2008 the then Labour Government introduced an incitement to ‘homophobic’ hatred offence in its Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.1
- The offence outlaws words or behaviour which are ‘threatening’ and intended to stir up ‘hatred’ on grounds of sexual orientation.
- It carries a maximum seven-year prison sentence.
- The offence was drafted with a high threshold, but well-founded anxieties about free speech remained.2 The law was modelled on the religious hatred law introduced in 2006, except that the new law omitted a free speech clause (see Incitement to Religious Hatred Offence apologetic).
- Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary, therefore sought to add a moderate cross-party amendment in the House of Lords to protect free speech. It was approved by the House of Lords in two separate votes in 2008.
- The free speech clause underlined the fact that mere disagreement with homosexual conduct was not in itself a crime under the new law:
Protection of freedom of expression (sexual orientation)
In this Part, 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.
- Following the two House of Lords votes, and with other time pressures affecting the Bill, the Government accepted the free speech clause and the new offence became law in 2008.
- Astonishingly, the following year the Government sought to repeal the free speech clause via its Coroners and Justice Bill 2009, alleging it was unnecessary.
- On 9 July 2009 the House of Lords resisted repeal by 186 votes to 133. The Government used its Commons majority to overturn the Lords but in November 2009 Peers again voted to retain the free speech clause by 179 votes to 135. The Government accepted defeat because it faced losing the entire Bill with the Parliamentary session ending days later.
- The new incitement law came into force with the free speech shield in March 2010.
- Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in 2010 that he would repeal Lord Waddington’s free speech clause, using the Parliament Acts if necessary.3 However, the Labour Party was defeated in the May 2010 General Election and the free speech clause remains on the statute book.
As part of living out their faith as a witness for Jesus Christ, Christians will wish to state that certain activities are sinful and contrary to Scripture. Homosexual practice is one such activity.4
Christians are to pray for those in authority and for the state to provide freedom for the gospel to be preached and for Christians to live “quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). (See Christian Freedoms and Heritage apologetic.)
Christians desire freedom to talk about God’s holiness and his requirements for personal conduct. Any law which could prevent Christians talking about any aspect of their faith is clearly of concern. There had already been cases of activists seeking to use existing laws to silence Christians (see below).
- The new offence had great potential to stifle free speech. Had Lord Waddington’s free speech clause not been included, it could have been argued that it was a criminal offence to publicly express the religious belief that homosexual practice is morally wrong. Christian ministers, evangelists, university CUs, writers and broadcasters, among others, would have been affected.
- Past cases show the danger of the law trespassing on free speech relating to sexual ethics:
- Harry Hammond, a street preacher from Bournemouth, was convicted by magistrates of a public order offence in 2002 because he held a sign saying homosexuality is immoral.5
- The Bishop of Chester was investigated by the Cheshire constabulary in November 2003 after he told his local newspaper of research showing that some homosexuals re-orientated to heterosexuality.6
- In Sweden, Pastor Ake Green was sentenced to jail in 2003 under similar laws for preaching a calm sermon against homosexual practice.7 He had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Sweden to secure his freedom.
- In 2005 Christian couple Joe and Helen Roberts were interrogated by police because they had complained about their local council’s ‘gay rights’ policy. The police said they were responding to a reported ‘homophobic incident’.8
- In November 2009 Christian grandmother Pauline Howe was investigated by police for sending a polite letter to Norwich Council objecting to a local gay pride parade.9
- Reasonable statements of Christian belief are often wrongly characterised as ‘hatred’ by people who strongly disagree with them. But in a democratic society people should be free to express disagreement without fear of censure from the state.
- The new offence was unnecessary: it was already a criminal offence to intimidate or attack anyone; inciting a crime against another person, for whatever reason, is also outlawed; and in England and Wales crimes committed against a person because of their sexual orientation are already punished more heavily under the policy on aggravated offences.
- A homosexual incitement law has the potential to make people fearful of expressing their views on this issue. The criminal law should not be used as a political tool to silence your opponents.
- As part of its Christian heritage, Britain has a long tradition of free speech. A ‘homophobic’ incitement law runs counter to that.
- 1The offence amended Part 3A of the Public Order Act 1986, see the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, Section 74.
- 2Prominent homosexual journalists and activists, such as Matthew Parris and Peter Tatchell, were among those to have voiced their opposition to the offence. See The Spectator online, 5 December 2007, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2007/12/i-oppose-a-gayhate-law-because-that-is-not-what-criminal-legislation-is-for/ as at 21 December 2015 and The Guardian online, 10 October 2007, see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/oct/10/hatespeechvfreespeech as at 21 December 2015
- 3Telegraph online, 3 April 2010, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/election-2010/7547718/Labour-pledges-to-repeal-free-speech-defence-for-homophobia-law.html as at 21 December 2015. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 allow the House of Commons to overrule the House of Lords and pass legislation without the consent of Peers. They are a draconian device intended to be used on matters of major national and constitutional significance.
- 4See for example: Mark 7:21; Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
- 5The Daily Telegraph, 14 January 2004
- 6BBC News online, 10 November 2003, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/merseyside/3257623.stm as at 21 December 2015
- 7The Independent, 12 February 2005
- 8The Times, 23 December 2005
- 9The Daily Telegraph, 27 October 2009