Bishops fight for right to criticise gay lifestyle
Cross-party peers cite free speech defence to block changes to bill
- The Observer, Sunday 24 May 2009
Church of England bishops are on a collision course with the government over its plans to amend the incitement to hatred laws, claiming they will stifle what they believe is legitimate criticism of homosexual lifestyles.
In what is being portrayed in some parliamentary quarters as a battle for free speech, a coalition of Anglican bishops, Conservative peers, Labour malcontents and leading crossbenchers have united to block the proposals.
"No reasonable person supports the stirring up of hatred of any kind," said Andrea Williams, director of Christian Concern For Our Nation, which is helping co-ordinate opposition to the plan. "However, in 21st-century Britain we must find a way of being able to live peaceably alongside one another allowing for free and robust debate around every aspect of life, including reasonable criticism and discussion of all forms of sexual behaviour."
Last year's Criminal Justice and Immigration Act created the criminal offence of "incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation". But a group of peers, led by the Tory Lord Waddington, forced the government to accept an amendment stipulating that people should not be taken to court for stating that homosexual sex is wrong or for trying to persuade gay people to remain celibate. The clause read: "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."
Now a new clause inserted in the Coroners and Justice Bill would see this defence dropped. The majority of the Church of England's bishops are believed to oppose dropping the defence, although there have been dissenters. "Our view is, if it isn't broke don't mend it," a church spokesman said. "This is about freedom of speech and avoiding unnecessary police investigations."
The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Right Rev George Cassidy, told parliament last week "that people should be protected from inflammatory and intimidating behaviour towards them on the basis of their sexual orientation". However, he added: "Our concern is with the potential application of the law to restrict legitimate discussion and expression of opinion about sexual ethics and sexual behaviour."
Christian groups complain the current laws have already resulted in people being investigated for criticising homosexual lifestyles and claim more will be prosecuted if the amendment becomes law. They point to cases such as that of Kwabena Peat, a north London history teacher, who was dismissed for complaining that a staff away day was used to promote homosexual lifestyles.
In January 2006, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, then secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, was investigated by police for saying on radio that homosexual practice was unacceptable in terms of health and moral issues.
"The government seeks to remove this commonsense provision at the behest of the homosexual lobby who do not want to have their sexual practices questioned," Williams said. "We are seeing case after case of Christians being discriminated against because of their biblical views on sexual conduct. It is time to take action before our laws silence any objection to homosexual practice."
"There is, in our view, a very real danger of a chilling effect caused by this kind of legislation," legal advice sought by Christian Concern from Simon Draycott QC concludes. "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."
But gay rights groups say the threshold for prosecution under incitement to hatred laws is set so high there is no danger that people who criticise homosexuality will be subject to police investigations if the clause in the Criminal Justice Act is dropped. "People must be free to express their views in temperate terms," said Derek Munn, director of public affairs at Stonewall, the gay rights group. "We do not accept that people should be able to incite violence or hatred. This risks offering a defence to those who incite hatred."
Given the opposition in the Lords, and pressures on the legislative timetable, the government may be forced to drop the proposal to get the bill passed.