The free speech amendment has again been backed by the House of Lords. It will go on the statute book later today.
In last night's debate Lord Waddington gave a commanding speech. Labour Peer Lord Clarke spoke powerfully in favour of the amendment as did Lord Armstrong, the former Cabinet Secretary.
There was also strong support from Viscount Bledisloe QC and senior Judge, Baroness Butler-Sloss, peers who have both strongly supported gay rights in the past. Lady Falkner of Margravine, a backbench Lib Dem, voiced grave concerns about free speech, although she abstained in the vote.
Both the Government and the Liberal Democrat front bench strongly opposed the free speech amendment. All the more astonishing therefore that in the division peers backed the amendment by 178 votes to 164. Some 13 Labour peers defied the Labour Whip. The Bishops of Norwich and Chichester also supported us. It is clear that the Government could not get their own supporters to oppose the clause in sufficient numbers.
After the vote the Bill 'ping-ponged' back to the Commons. There the Government reluctantly decided to accept the Waddington amendment. Only the Liberal Democrat front bench objected, forcing a vote on the matter. In the end the amendment was accepted by 324 votes to 46 as the Government joined the Conservatives to keep the amendment. The Government did this in order to stop the Bill continuing to ping-pong between houses.
Ministers were keen to get the Bill passed quickly. No doubt they had in mind two previous defeats in the Lords, one of them just before midnight.
Protection for the Gospel
The free speech clause, soon to be law, underlines the fact that the incitement to homophobic hatred offence in no way criminalises mere disagreement with homosexuality.
The clause states, "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."
Our moral obligation is to love people, no matter who they are. Hatred of people is always wrong. Christians love the sinner, but hate the sin (see Romans 12:9 and 13:9-10). Having received Christ's forgiveness we want to share the Gospel with others, including homosexual people. We hold out the message of new life in Christ and the fact that, as the Bishop of Chester has said, practising homosexuals can change.
How important it is therefore to protect our freedom to proclaim the Gospel.
The new law
We are grateful to Maria Eagle MP, the Government Minister responsible for the Bill, for her courtesy and for meeting with us at an early stage. It was the Government's initiative to adopt two of the three safeguards in the religious hatred law for their new homophobic hatred offence.
The first safeguard is that only threatening conduct is covered by the offence, not abusive or insulting behaviour. The second safeguard is that the prosecution must prove intention to stir up hatred.
Thanks to Lord Waddington we now have the third safeguard, a free speech clause.
We were right to be concerned that Gospel freedom was being put in jeopardy. In recent years some Christians have had to put up with completely unacceptable conduct from the police.
The Bishop of Chester and Joe and Helen Roberts may have been the most scandalous examples, but there were many more telling cases cited by Peers in the debate. Maria Eagle accepted that overzealous actions by the police had led to "ludicrous" investigations of perfectly innocent people.
With the Government's two safeguards in place, we agreed with them that a properly directed jury should never convict someone simply for exercising free speech. The problem was that a clause was desperately needed to draw the attention of prosecutors and the police to the issue of free speech and religious liberty. I am pleased to say that Lord Waddington's amendment will help to minimize the risk of problems with the new law.
Of course, the free speech clause offers no protection at all to anyone who stirs up violent threats against homosexual people. In our view people who threaten such violence should face the full penalty of the law. And there are already many good laws on the statute book to deal with such people without the incitement offence ever being needed.
The Government and Stonewall have got the offence they wanted. We've got substantial protections for free speech. In the coming years we need to be very vigilant to ensure that proper attention is paid to these protections by the police and prosecutors.
All in all this is one of the most providential results we have ever known. A great deal of work went on behind the scenes, not least the tireless efforts of Lord Waddington himself. Many Christians made the vote a matter for earnest prayer. We give thanks to God for this great deliverance.
We are also delighted that cannabis is to be re-classified to Class B. Many Christians were praying for this. So yesterday we had two pieces of really excellent news.
Free speech has been safeguarded. Let us give thanks to God. Let us also work to safeguard the sanctity of life. Within the next fortnight for the first time in 18 years there will be crucial votes in the House of Commons on abortion and embryology.