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Monday, 25 May 2009

The right to criticise

How much should people be able to talk publicly about homosexuality, even if that talk is potentially hurtful? I personally see no reason why it shouldn’t be discussed in churches within a biblical context if that’s what takes the fancy of the priest.

But there are those in government here in the UK who seem to believe no criticism should be allowed. I cite a piece in yesterday’s Observer saying, “Church of England bishops are on a collision course with the government over its plans to amend the incitement[-]to[-]hatred laws, claiming they will stifle what they believe is legitimate criticism of homosexual lifestyles.”

It goes on to quote Andrea Williams, director of the homophobic, Right-wing Christian Concern for Our Nation, as saying, “No reasonable person supports the stirring up of hatred of any kind.

“However, in 21st-century Britain we must find a way of being able to live peaceably alongside one another allowing for free and robust debate around every aspect of life, including reasonable criticism and discussion of all forms of sexual behaviour.”

It’s that word reasonable that’s key. I’m confident enough to know that any reasonable debate about homosexuality between a homophobic Christian (or other religion fan) and a freethinking, intelligent logical interlocutor will see a convincing win for the latter.

I also want a situation whereby I am free to examine and criticise religion fans – or at least their ideas and beliefs – even if they take offence. Provided I’m not inciting actual violence, what does it matter? If they’re sure of their cause, they should be able to take all the knocks dissenters what to deal out.

The trouble with a lot of religion fans is that they like to hand it out but can’t take it when the shit heads in their direction.

By way of explanation, last year an offence of “incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” was created in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. Then a group of peers successfully got an amendment to that, saying people shouldn’t face prosecution just for saying homosexuality is wrong and trying to persuade gay people to refrain from nookie.

But a new clause inserted in the Coroners and Justice Bill would see this defence dropped, and that’s what’s worrying the God botherers. The Observer tells us:

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Right Rev. George Cassidy, told parliament last week “that people should be protected from inflammatory and intimidating behaviour towards them on the basis of their sexual orientation”. However, he added: “Our concern is with the potential application of the law to restrict legitimate discussion and expression of opinion about sexual ethics and sexual behaviour.”

I’m finding myself – some might say paradoxically – agreeing with him. But we must be allowed to knock religion, too, whether that’s in debate or humour – with all the usual caveats about incitement and shouting “Fire!” in a crowded, fire-free theatre taken into account, of course.

It’s probably a storm in a teacup, anyway, if Derek Munn of the gay-rights group Stonewall is correct. The paper quotes him as saying that the threshold for prosecution under incitement-to-hatred laws is set so high that there is no danger that people who criticise homosexuality will find themselves investigated by the police if the clause in the Criminal Justice Act is dropped.

“People must be free to express their views in temperate terms,” he says. “We do not accept that people should be able to incite violence or hatred. This risks offering a defence to those who incite hatred.”

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