Churches seek reassurance over incitement law

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A joint statement from the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in England has revealed their worries that a new incitement to homophobic hatred law might target Christian teachings.

In a memorandum to a committee of MPs the churches asserted their view that “sexual activity and lifestyle, as distinct from sexual orientation, are matters of choice and impinge upon the public sphere.

“As such they are subject to evaluation and criticism, and freedom to discuss them must be preserved.

“The Christian churches hold a set of beliefs about human sexuality, marriage and family which represents a strong consensus through time and space.

“This tradition teaches that human sexuality is a gift of God which finds its proper expression in marriage, the exclusive, freely-accepted and permanent bond between a man and a woman, and that sexual relations outside marriage fall short of God’s purpose.”

The memorandum is a response to an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill currently before Parliament, which would make incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation an offence.

“Christians engaged in teaching or preaching and those seeking to act in accord with Christian convictions in their daily lives need to be assured that the expression of strong opinions on marriage or sexuality will not be illegal,” the joint statement read.

“Legislation on incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation (should) permit the expression of traditional Christian (and other) opinions on sexual behaviour and consequent criticisms of particular forms of behaviour or lifestyle.”

The two churches also want assurances that they would be able to express their views on gay people “directed against conduct rather than against the person themselves.”

They also queried whether existing laws are being used correctly.

“Words, behaviour and display of written material which are intended to cause harassment, alarm or distress, or which occur in the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, are already prohibited by [sections] 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986,” the statement read.

“We wonder whether these provisions are being enforced effectively and equitably in order to combat hate crimes.”

The incitement to homophobic hatred proposal, similar to protections already in place for people of faith, in fact seek to criminalise “inciting hatred against a group of people or an undefined group of people on the grounds of their sexuality,” according to Justice minister Maria Eagle.

Despite the concerns of the Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders, the homophobic incitement amendment was approved by a committee of MPs last week.