Back to work defending free speech

Having recently recovered from an unpleasant bout of what I assume was COVID-19, I am now working from home like millions of others.

by Simon Calvert

Next year I will celebrate 25 years of working at The Christian Institute. I’ve spent much of that time fighting for freedom of speech. It’s not the only thing I do, but it can often dominate my workload.

During my first decade at the Institute I was at the heart of a protracted five-year battle to prevent ‘religious hatred’ laws becoming a tool for silencing gospel preaching. Tony Blair was at the height of his power and his Government had lost only one vote. Winning on religious hatred in the House of Commons seemed very unlikely.

The Home Office website had a Q&A on the proposed religious hatred offence. It confirmed that in some circumstances saying “Jesus is the only way to salvation” could break the new law. No wonder tens of thousands of Christians were actively involved in opposing it.

In a House of Commons meeting with dozens of constituents who objected to the plans, an exasperated Government minister blurted out, “normally protesters give up after a while, but you Christians keep on coming back”.

We sent a special legal briefing to some Scottish MPs to show how the law would inevitably affect Scotland (even though it was only supposed to apply to England). To our delight SNP members unexpectedly flew down to London to vote our way. One Labour MP told me he’d been overwhelmed by visits from Christians and he, like several others, had changed his mind and planned to rebel against the Government. Other Labour MPs helped us by abstaining.

In the end we did win – by one vote! Ironically it was fault of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who went home and missed the vote. This was a humbling reminder that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord” (Prov 21:1).

The Labour Government then introduced a ‘homophobic hatred’ incitement offence. They had learned from their defeat and agreed to include two of the three safeguards we had won on religious hatred. But they refused to allow a free speech clause. Former Home Secretary Lord Waddington was determined to put this right. Over two years, and two Government bills and four major votes, he won. He was a great pleasure to work with and wrote about the campaign in his autobiography.

Unlikely support

After this my colleagues and I turned our attention to the law against ‘insults’ which was increasingly being used against Christian business owners and street preachers. I had the peculiar pleasure of speaking alongside Rowan Atkinson at the launch of “Reform Section 5” – our joint campaign with the National Secular Society. With support from people like Stephen Fry it quickly became a talking point on TV panel shows like Have I Got News For You.

Former Chief Constable, and HM Inspector of Police, Lord Dear, led the campaign in the Lords. The cause of free speech was so popular with peers that they rebelled against the leaderships of all the main political parties. They voted for our amendment in defiance of party whips and defeated the Government. I’ve never seen a back-bench rebellion like it, before or since.

Soon after winning that campaign we had to adapt to a new threat – a proposed law against ‘being annoying in a public place’. It was the usual story. The Government identifies a genuine problem – in this case, anti-social behaviour – and proposes a catch-all solution which inevitably undermines the freedom of innocent people. Thankfully, we defeated the Government again and the proposals were dramatically watered down.

Since 2015, the repeated refrain of the Cameron and May administrations was the need to tackle ‘extremism’. Again, though, ministers failed to define their terms and kept proposing measures which caught innocent free speech. The Defend Free Speech campaign has kept up the pressure on successive Governments over these measures, once again allowing us to work with atheists, gay rights campaigners and civil libertarians who are happy to defend our freedom to proclaim biblical truths.

Ashers Baking Company

Meanwhile, my colleague Sam Webster, has been responsible for fighting and winning some of the leading free speech court cases in the UK today. He oversees our Legal Defence Fund. Sam has won every street preacher case he has taken on, but as he often says this is a reflection on how good our laws are on public speech. Things have been more difficult for businesses and employees.

The Ashers Baking Co. case was a decisive win the Supreme Court. It protects against compelled speech – that is, being forced to say things you don’t believe. Many were involved in the case. My role was to handle the press. You couldn’t wish for better people to work with than the McArthur family. But it was tough for them over the four years of the case.

It has been thrilling to see the influence of the Ashers judgment. It is by far the biggest free speech case we’ve ever been involved with. But smaller cases can be very significant too, like the Adrian Smith case, which we also won. This High Court precedent protects people from being punished by employers for private views expressed on Facebook. It is now routinely cited in other cases.

The threats to free speech never go away, though they often change form. Over the years many University Student Unions have tried to frustrate the work of Christian Unions. Back in 2004 Hull CU was told it had to have atheists on its executive. Today this kind of juvenile student politics has spread beyond the campus to local government. Witness the cancellation of Franklin Graham’s evangelistic events. Churches too can face problems from Councils that decline to hire them premises or drag their feet over planning decisions. The Institute is actively involved in helping churches as they face these kinds of problems.

Right now, under the shadow of COVID-19, society is willing to accept the temporary curtailment of all kinds of basic freedoms. But this will not – it cannot – last for long. Eventually, life will return to normal. And, ‘normal’ means the church having to fight for the freedom to proclaim the whole counsel of God.

We give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy. We should make full use of them. And let us pray for firm resolve to continue the fight to keep those freedoms in the years ahead.

“Christianity Challenged” – Simon Calvert speaking at GideonsUK National Convention 2019

Simon Calvert is the Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute