Free speech is something wooly liberals tend to support……it is one of those things that is a “nice” idea. However, in reality free speech becomes something far more complicated. As the discussions regarding the BNP over the years have shown there is a fine line between free speech and discrimination. There are similar issues around faith and LGB sexual orientation.
It appears this is something which has come to a head in recent months, particularly in relation to clause 61 of the Coroners and Justice Bill which is currently going through the Lords. According to the information given by Care and by Stonewall the situation is that the government have acted to introduce protection against hatred on the basis of sexual orientation. Parliament voted to include an amendment put forward by Lord Waddington which read:
‘29JA Protection of freedom of expression (sexual orientation): 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.’ (Care have produced an informative briefing in PDF form which for some reason wouldn’t link, www.care.org.uk/Publisher/File.aspx?ID=37546 is the address).
This amendment was included within the first reading of the bill in the Lords. However, in January the government removed the amendment and so the version currently going through the Lords doesn’t include it. This is the position that Stonewall support because they believe that “it is unnecessary and could mean that a very small number of people of extreme views attempt to avoid prosecution by citing a ‘religious defence’.”
Religious organisations, however, are concerned. They believe that cases are already starting to emerge where people who object to homosexual behaviour, for religious reasons, are finding their right to express their views are restricted. In addition to Care, which I have already linked to, Christian Legal Centre and CCFON are fighting for the reinstatement of the amendment.
This conflict is not an easy one to sort out. Personally, I believe the amendment should remain. The reason is that I have been in situations where people of faith have said stuff which could, to the outsider, been interpreted as inciting hatred. However, the individuals making these comments have in no way been inciting hatred against people of different sexual orientations. Rather, they have been expressing (i) their fear of the way secularisation has been moving forward and the way they regard the extension of rights for those with differing sexual orientations as a symbol of this or (ii) what they regard as love for those with non-heterosexual orientations, (where they regard homosexuality as sinful). The fact is their interpretation of the bible and they way they have expressed their understandings has been tactless and advocated a range of views including (i) the need to “heal” homosexuals and lesbians, (ii) the view that LGB people won’t be going to heaven, (iii) Jesus hating the sin of homosexuality and so forth.
Now, don’t get me wrong….I in no way believe that Christians putting forward these views -which leave LGB people who are made in the image of God, (just as all of us are), resentful against the church and deeply hurt – are right in their opinions. However, equally, I understand where many of those who say these things are coming from. I have heard their stories, I know their influences and I know their earnest wish to follow what they see as the biblical will of God by taking literal or very conservative approaches. They see their rights being eroded by conservative secularists who are using equality rights as a trojen horse to attack Christianity, and this is another example.
This is why my own belief is that ex-gay programmes, which have been proven not to work and which cause psychological harm, should be banned and it should be illegal to promote them. It should also be illegal to promote views inciting attacks on gay and lesbian people, whether in churches or elsewhere. However, beyond this as said earlier I believe the amendment should be re-instated. The secular fundamentalists must not be allowed to push forward their agenda.
Additionally, despite what some of the Christian organisations are saying Stonewall should be recognised as an organisation which is seeking to recognise the complexities of the sometimes conflicting positions of LGB campaigners and faith organisations. They have produced this booklet on the subject of “Religion and Sexual Orientation: How to Manage Relations in the Workplace”.
This issue is about protection of civil liberties and free speech, but more importantly it is about the dignity of individuals. Sometimes compromises need to be made and the acceptance of this amendment by some LGB campaigners is one such occassion. Equally, I believe on the other side that some Christians need to make some compromises too.