By Hilary White

WESTMINSTER, November 11, 2009 ( – MPs have voted down a proposal that would have ensured that Christians in the UK retained the freedom to criticise homosexual activity in the country under a proposed hate crimes bill. A free speech amendment in the proposed hate crimes legislation was rejected 342 votes to 145 by MPs on Monday night.

The defeated amendment, proposed by Lord David Waddington, reads, “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.”

In the proposed bill the offense of “stirring up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” carries a sentence of up to seven years' imprisonment. Government ministers contend that the clause is unnecessary.

The clause has been batted back and forth between the House of Lords, who reinserted it last July, and the Commons, which has repeatedly rejected it. The bill is to return to the House of Lords November 11th and 12th for debate. 

Tory MP Dominic Grieve, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, said on the night of the vote that without the amendment, the bill could have a “chilling effect on freedom of speech” and that there is “plenty of evidence” that existing similar “public order” ordinances already have this effect.

Such laws, he said, are “based upon a form of political correctness” that are “leading to abuse in a number of circumstances by the police who threaten individuals with prosecution unless they desist from expressing perfectly legitimate views.”

Grieve said, “I would be more reassured if the Government were taking the public order legislation problems that have arisen more seriously.” The problem is continuing, he said, and for that reason, “we should be very wary of legislation that fetters freedom of speech.”

Lord Waddington, the author and sponsor of the amendment, told the House of Lords on Monday, “We are not talking about the terrible threat that is faced by many gays, because that threat can be dealt with – and often is dealt with – under the present law.”

He said it is simply “not the case” that the “free speech clause opens the gates to incitement to violence against gays.” He pointed to the same incidents referred to by Mr. Grieve in which citizens expressing religious or other opinions opposing homosexual activity have been “interviewed” by police as possible offenders. Such people, he said, “were told by the police that they were very close to the serious offence of homophobia, punishable by seven years' imprisonment.”

The most recent case in which a citizen expressing an opinion against homosexual behavior has been interrogated is that of Mrs. Pauline Howe, 67, a Christian who was denounced to police by her local Norwich Council when she wrote complaining of the local “gay pride” events. Mrs. Howe was visited by police who questioned her and said she could be open to a hate crime charge. She is considering legal action, saying the visit frightened and intimidated her, although police said they concluded they had no grounds for a charge under existing statutes.

In October, Lord Dear, a former HM Inspector of Constabulary, said that the amendment was “essential” if police officers are to enforce the Government's 'homophobic hatred' law with “good judgment and a light touch.”

“The police need to be free to make a judgment in the moment, not harnessed by a one-size-fits-all policy dictated from above,” Lord Dear said.

The bill has been heavily criticized in its long journey through Parliament, even by homosexuals themselves. In 2007, British actor and comedian Christopher Biggins warned that it would quash freedom of speech and result in a backlash against homosexuals. Biggins called it “yet another step in the grim march of authoritarianism now afflicting Britain, with people terrified of speaking their minds for fear of the knock on the door.”