By Hilary White

LONDON, May 8, 2008 ( – MPs at Westminster voted on Tuesday night to remove protections for freedom of speech from a “hate crimes” bill, but a vote in the House of Lords retained the wording. In a vote of 338 to 136, the House of Commons agreed with homosexual activists who wanted wording removed that would have allowed Christians and others who objected to homosexual behaviour to preach Christian sexual morality in public without fear of prosecution.

Peers in the House of Lords, however, voted today to retain an amendment that allows religious people to claim freedom of religious expression when charged with “inciting hatred”. The House of Commons was forced to let the wording remain in the bill due to time constraints.

The amendment says, “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.”

Andrew Selous, the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire and Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions, warned in the House of Commons that while “we all agree that no one should be abused for their lifestyle,” he pointed to several cases where Christians who objected to homosexuality as a lifestyle have been persecuted under current laws.

“An elderly pensioner couple, a bishop of the Church of England, a Roman Catholic archbishop, a leading Muslim figure and a leading author have been investigated by the police, and when that happens people worry about the nature of our society. We must maintain that essential freedom of speech while avoiding the harm and upset that neither she (Labour MP Maria Eagle) nor I wants to see,” Selous said.

Nick Herbert the Conservative Shadow Secretary for Justice and MP for Arundel and South Downs argued that the amendment does not weaken the protection for homosexuals.

“We are not here to legislate for matters of taste; we are deciding whether comment should fall within the scope of the criminal law. All the amendment seeks to do is say that for the avoidance of doubt, criticism of sexual conduct and urging people to refrain from certain sexual conduct should not of itself be taken as threatening or intended to stir up hatred. That is a perfectly reasonable safeguard.”

The legislation allows up to seven years in prison for a conviction on incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation.

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