8th May 2008
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An amendment ensuring people are free to criticise homosexual activities and to run sexual healing ministries has passed into law after a stand-off between the Lords and the Commons.
The clause, moved by Lord Waddington in the House of Lords, was inserted into the Government's Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill in reaction to a new homosexual 'hate crime' law.
In practice, although the new law criminalises behaviour which would 'stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation' it has to be 'intended' to do so and it has to be 'threatening'. There is as little prospect of anyone being charged under it as there is of anyone being charged under the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which outlawed 'threatening' behaviour intended to stir up religious hatred. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service must gain the approval of the Attorney General in every case, which gives each prosecution a political dimension.
There have consequently been no prosecutions under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, and it is hard to see how there could be. The law was largely symbolic, just as the new law will be. That does not make it unimportant; the Government used the Racial and Religious Hatred Law to justify abolition of the blasphemy laws.
In addition, there is always the concern that people will feel so under threat from a law such as this that they will feel inhibited from expressing their opinions - the so-called 'chilling effect' on freedom of speech. The free speech clause in the 2006 Act was also inserted to prevent politically-correct policemen turning up on doorsteps to intimidate people who were merely engaging in the cut and thrust of religious debate.
That is why, as the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was going through Parliament in 2005, atheist politicians Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Lester of Herne Hill were to the fore in promoting a 'free speech' clause (which Christian Voice supported). Their clause wrote on the face of the Bill that 'discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse' of religions and belief systems were exempt from its provisions.
Now, in the case of the sexual orientation equivalent, the same two politicians were suddenly opposed to freedom of speech.
Stephen Green, National Director of Christian Voice, said today:
'There is a famous quote attributed to Voltaire, another opponent of Christianity, that says: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Today's atheists are unencumbered by such noble sentiments. Now it is: "I disagree with what you say, and I will defend to the death my right to shut you up."
'While Christians campaigned for both these freedom of speech clauses, the atheists only want freedom of speech where it suits them. And it does not suit them to have homosexuality, that overweening expression of rebellion against God's created order, criticised, ridiculed or insulted. As it happens, in his bid to get his clause accepted, Lord Waddington even had to take out the words 'expressions of antipathy'. So ordinary decent people aren't really supposed to be disgusted by homosexuality.
'Nevertheless, the absence of those words should not matter. Even without them, no one should fear a knock on the door for expressing their opinion about homosexuality. But the passage of the Bill has shone a torch into the dark corners of atheist hypocrisy, and for that we should be both amused and grateful.
RACIAL AND RELIGIOUS HATRED ACT 2006
The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 (why the words 'Racial and' were there when it had nothing to do with racial hatred is a good question) amended the Public Order Act 1986.
The exact form of words, from the 2006 Act, is:
'A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.'
The deletion of 'insulting' and 'abusive' from the original wording of the religious hatred offence means that to prove 'threatening behaviour' is now a very high mountain for any prosecution to scale. The fact that the permission of the Attorney General is needed before a case can even be brought adds an additional hurdle, and one of a political nature.
However, despite that provision, it was feared that over-zealous policemen could arrest or harass anyone who merely criticised another religion.
For that reason, as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was going through Parliament, the Government was forced to concede this qualification on the face of the 2006 Act, under the heading 'Protection of freedom of expression'
'Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.'
The two main parliamentary protagonists for this freedom of speech clause were Dr Evan Harris MP in the Commons and Lord Lester of Herne Hill in the House of Lords.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND IMMIGRATION ACT 2008
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 has further amended the Public Order Act 1986 by inserting the words 'or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation' after 'stir up religious hatred' in the definition above. So it now reads:
'A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.'
The permission of the Attorney General is still needed before a case can be brought.
However, despite that provision, the experience of people who had been intimidated by the police for voicing opinions hostile to homosexuality even without the new law showed that there was still a problem from policemen prejudiced against Christianity in particular. The case in which the Bishop of Chester, a member of the House of Lords, was investigated by the police for saying the homosexuality could be treated and overcome showed that mere guidelines would not work. A freedom of expression clause was needed on the face of the Act. The one successfully moved by Lord Waddington was in the end much weaker in tone than its religious hatred equivalent. Under the heading 'Protection of freedom of expression (sexual orientation),' it says this:
'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.'
The two main parliamentary opponents of this freedom of speech clause were Dr Evan Harris MP in the Commons and Lord Lester of Herne Hill in the House of Lords.