BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE GOVERNMENT has defeated an attempt to change a law which Church leaders say will stop Christians from pronouncing their beliefs about marriage and family life.
An amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill was aimed at protecting free speech and at making sure Christians were not prosecuted simply for criticising homosexual lifestyles.
But the Government ensured its failure by imposing a three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote against the amendment as the Bill passed through its final stages in the House of Commons. It was defeated by 338 votes to 169. The amendment said that nothing should prohibit or restrict "discussion of, criticism of, or'expression of antipathy towards conduct relating to a particular sexual orientation, or urging persons of a particular sexual orientation to refrain from or modify conduct according to that orientation".
It was introduced by Jim Dobbin, Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, who said that Catholic and Anglican leaders believed it would be impossible for Christianity to be practised and taught under the proposals. He explained that the bishops had helped to draft the amendment because they feared that the gay hate provisions would "impinge on their basic freedom to practise their religion". "We cannot ignore such a serious concern from two important national religious institutions," said Mr Dobbin.
He said that he could list the "many occasions on which leading church people have been visited, telephoned or placed under scrutiny by the police for sermons that they have given in their churches.
"That is what people are worried about," he said. "For example, Mario Conti, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, was reported to the police in 2006 for a sermon in which he asserted that civil partnerships undermined marriage."
He said that while Government Ministers may view the amendment as unnecessary, "the churches whose members and leaders may be on the receiving end of malicious complaints under the new law do not agree".
Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, said there was "ample evidence that the lack of a saving clause... will cause problems, because the public authorities and the police misinterpret what the law says". But Justice Minister Maria Eagle told the Commons that the legislation concerned only "threatening words or behavior, intended to incite hatred against a group of people on the basis of their sexuality".
"That is very narrow and very clear," she said, adding that "proper guidance and training" would remedy overzealous policing. "Those matters will be dealt with once the law is passed," she said.
The proposed law against incitement to hatred of homosexuals carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail for those found guilty — a longer sentence than the five years handed down to a typical rapist.
It is considered so severe that it has drawn criticism even from within Britain's gay community, with such public figures as Christopher Biggins, Matthew Parris and Peter Tatchell opposing it.
Last year Catholic and Anglican leaders sent a joint memorandum to the Public Bill Committee of the House of Commons in which they complained of police harassment under existing legislation.
Those already visited by police after expressing their views on homosexuality include journalist Lynette Burrows, who had questioned the rights of gays to adopt children; Sir lqbal Sacranie, then head of the Muslim Council of Britain, who had described homosexuality as "harmful" in a radio interview; and Joe and Helen Roberts, a retired couple from Fleetwood, Lancashire, who complained to their local authority about its promotion of civil partnership ceremonies.
The Bill must later this year pass through the House of Lords where the gay hate proposals are expected to be the focus of renewed opposition.