A House of Lords vote against the government's proposals on “homophobic hatred” has provoked mixed reactions, with both Christian and secular activists lining up on each side of the debate.
The news came on Thursday night (9 July 2009) as the Lords debated legislation around incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation. They voted by 186 to 133 to insert a clause in the Coroners and Justice Bill allowing a defence of free speech in cases of “discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practice”.
However, the Ministry of Justice insisted that the legal provisions already made clear that prosecution could be brought only if there was an intention to stir up hatred.
The amendment in the Lords was proposed by David Waddington, a former Tory home secretary, who said that “One must look at the circumstances and the manner in which the words are spoken to see whether they were in fact threatening and driven by hate”.
Stonewall, a leading charity promoting the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, insisted that the amendment was unnecessary. They insist that the original proposals “will categorically not impede freedom of speech”.
Stonewall's view has been backed by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).
In contrast the socially conservative pressure group Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), sent a jubilant email to supporters yesterday welcoming the Lords' vote.
“This victory is of fundamental importance to Christians and to all who wish to discuss or criticise homosexual conduct freely” they said.
Their spokesperson Andrea Minichiello Williams, claimed that without the amendment, the bill would “effectively gag Christians from openly explaining biblical teaching on sexual conduct”.
CCFON interpret the Bible to mean that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are always wrong, an interpretation that has faced increasing challenges in both church and academic circles in recent years.
However, many argue that the legislation would not stop them expressing this view, with or without the amendment.
CCFON may be surprised to hear that others welcoming the outcome of the Lords' vote include the gay human rights activist Peter Tatchell.
“I am content with the Lords' decision on free speech grounds,” he told Ekklesia “Although I am concerned that some of their lordships used the free speech argument as a cover for their true homophobic motivation”.
He suggests that existing laws on the issue are already open to police abuse, pointing to the case of Harry Hammond, a Christian preacher in Bournemouth, who received a criminal conviction after campaigning against homosexuality.
“Harry was a bit of a bigot, but a fairly gentle one,” said Tatchell, “He should never have been criiminalised”.
The government is expected to seek the removal of the clause when the bill returns to the Commons later in the year.