Bishops say keep free speech shield

The Church of England wants the Government to drop its plan to remove a free speech protection from a new ‘gay hate’ law.

The protection, added to the law last year, makes clear that criticising homosexual activity should not be a crime in itself.

Bishops are concerned that, without the protection, the new law of inciting hatred on grounds of sexual orientation could be used to silence critics of homosexual lifestyles.

The Government is trying to use its new Coroners and Justice Bill to remove the safeguard.

But a Church of England spokesman has told one newspaper: “Our view is, if it isn’t broke don’t mend it.

“This is about freedom of speech and avoiding unnecessary police investigations.”

The free speech wording was added when the new law had its final passage through the House of Lords last May.

Many Peers debating the Coroners and Justice Bill last week, including the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Rt Revd George Cassidy, signalled their opposition to the Government’s attempt to remove the protection.

The Government says the safeguard is not necessary, and agrees with gay lobby group Stonewall that the threshold of the offence is high enough without it.

Stonewall’s Director of Public Affairs, Derek Munn, said: “People must be free to express their views in temperate terms,” but said the safeguard “risks offering a defence to those who incite hatred”.

However, a new legal opinion on the Bill from Simon Draycott QC warns: “There is, in our view, a very real danger of a chilling effect caused by this kind of legislation.”

The advice, obtained by campaign group Christian Concern for Our Nation, goes on: “The harm is often done on the ground, when the police are pressed to intervene to stop a perfectly lawful speech or debate on the grounds that one of the speakers is stirring up hatred.”

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.”

A number of individuals have faced problems from the police after criticising homosexuality.

Joe and Helen Roberts

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.

The Bishop of Chester

In November 2003 the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd 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’. The police passed a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, who decided not to prosecute because the Bishop had not broken any “current” laws.

Lynette Burrows

Lynette Burrows, an author and family-values campaigner, took part in a radio talk show about civil partnerships for homosexuals in 2005. 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.

Iris Robinson

After a ten month wait, Northern Irish MP Iris Robinson heard in March of this year that she would not be prosecuted under the Province’s incitement laws for expressing her beliefs about homosexuality.

During a radio interview, Mrs Robinson had used the biblical word ‘abomination’ to describe homosexuality and suggested that counselling could help those struggling with same-sex attraction. She also condemned violence against the homosexual community, stating that Christians should “love the sinner and hate the sin”.

Miguel Hayworth

In 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.

Sir Iqbal Sacranie

In 2006 Sir Iqbal Sacranie, then head of the Muslim Council of Britain, was investigated by police after he said on BBC Radio 4’s PM Programme that the practice of homosexuality is not acceptable.

Stephen Green

Stephen Green, a Christian campaigner, was arrested in 2006 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.

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