Tories defend religious opt-out from homophobic incitement law

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The Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve has expressed support for an amendment that could weaken laws protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

In May the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act created an offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

However, an amendment by Tory peer Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, was added to the legislation.

His amendment to the offence of using threatening language with intent to stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation said that urging someone to change their sexuality should not count “of itself” as threatening or as intended to stir up hatred.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, part of the government’s legislative programme for this session of Parliament, contains a clause removing the Waddington amendment.

While Lord Waddington claimed his amendment was about “free speech,” in effect it gives people leeway to claim they were just following their religious beliefs if accused of inciting others to hate gay, lesbian or bisexual people.

Fundamentalist Christians claim it will allow them to continue to criticise homosexual sex and urge people to refrain from it.

During today’s second reading of the Coroners Bill this afternoon Dominic Grieve, who was appointed Shadow Justice Secretary in last week’s reshuffle, said he supported the Waddington amendment and cited a case championed by the Christian Institute as evidence of a “chilling effect” on Christians.

“I perceive the provision as a saving clause, designed to deal with the chilling effect that always arises when restrictions are placed on freedom of speech,” he told MPs.

“We debated it and commented on it previously, when we considered issues such as incitement to religious hatred.

“I want individuals who incite homophobic hatred to be prosecuted just as much as the Under-Secretary does, but I do not want the circumstances that I am about to outline to be repeated, and I do not believe that the Government want that either.”

He cited the case of a Christian couple in Blackpool who wrote a letter to the local council complaining about funding for a gay rights projects and were later questioned by police.

They later won an apology and damages from Lancashire Police and Wyre Borough Council.

“They received treatment that makes me ashamed of the system that we seem to be creating in this country,” said Mr Grieve.

“We must ensure that such things do not happen. A sensible freedom of speech clause would be helpful, to reassure those who want to continue to express views that are legal—even if I disagree with them.”

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay equality organisation Stonewall, said the Waddington amendment has no effect on the law and categorised it as “a bit of red meat for the Tory Right.”

“You would not put a clause in saying it is OK to hate Jewish people,” he said.

Mr Summerskill said that in previous cases cited by the Christian Institute there was no guidance for police.

As a result of the new law the Crown Prosecution Service “is working very carefully” on guidelines.

“Guidance will be issued making crystal clear the difference between the trivial causing of offence and the criminal incitement to hatred,” said Mr Summerskill.

“There is a catalogue of cases cited by the Christian Institute last year, not one of which withstood scrutiny.

“It is distressing that some organisations that claim to be Christian do not put as much emphasis on truth as one would expect.”

Mr Summerskill said that Mr Grieve “seeks to take an even-handed approach to these matters but he has clearly been inaccurately briefed.”

Tory MP John Bercow said the Waddington amendment was a wrecking measure and called for it to be overturned.

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill had to become law by May 8th, when prison officers’ right-to-strike provisions expired under an industrial relations procedural arrangement.

For that reason the Waddington amendment was kept in the bill, but ministers made clear they were unhappy with it.

Justice minister Maria Eagle described it as “undesirable and unnecessary; it does not add anything to the law as it would stand without its inclusion.”

The new law against incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation is unlikely to be used frequently.

Similar laws against inciting racial hatred have only been used around 20 times in the 30 years since they came into force.