The Lords, last night, voted by 179 to 135 to retain a defence on the grounds of “free speech”, introduced by Lord Waddington, in the law against inciting homophobic hatred in the Equality legislation passing through parliament. The government opposed this “free speech” defence and the legislation has been returned to the Commons four times.
Now, I have blogged on this subject at length (Offend or please, 18th September) and do not intend to reiterate my points. It is clearly insupportable that anyone should be breaking the law by simply expressing a view that homosexual practice is wrong. It is also insupportable that they should cause distress or harassment to others by expressing those views in a way that is intrusive, unsolicited or liable to incite hatred or acts of discrimination by others. I have not looked at the wording of the clause, if it focuses on concepts such as “reasonableness” and “context”, I would probably support it; if it is simply a blanket exemption, I would not. It is also worth noting though that the legislation, as supported by the Commons, would have been extremely unlikely to have led to action against anyone on the grounds that they expressed a simple opinion,
“ A spokeswoman said the government was “very disappointed” at the vote as the threshold for prosecution was “high”, the defence was not needed . She said “The offence only covers words or behaviour that are threatening and intended to stir up hatred.”
There is no doubt that there is genuine concern around the equality legislation and that that concern comes from groups as diverse as Churches and comedians. What does worry me is that a small number of those who support the “free speech” clause do so because it allows them to offer “reparative therapies” ; therapies which have been shown to be deeply damaging to the psychological well being of the individuals involved. There are ex gay industries in the UK and I would like to see such “ministries” answerable to outside bodies in terms of their ethical frameworks and open to litigation if they operate in ways that could be deemed detrimental to the individuals involved.
Meanwhile, as some sectors of the Church celebrate their freedom of speech, a climate of fear and an inability to speak out still remains for so many LGBT Christians. Clergy whose love literally “dare not speak its name” , a “don’t ask” but also a “don’t you dare tell” policy and laypeople who are silent or invisible in the face of a Church which claims to be committed to a listening process but is in the process of firmly stopping its ears.
Photo above : Conservative christians at this year's Manchester Gay Pride