In yesterday’s debate on the Government’s legislative programme, responding to an intervention from Labour’s Chris Bryant, David Cameron promised to "table an amendment to make sure that any such approach is about stopping people inciting violence and is not an infringement of free speech." The Conservative leader said more in last weekend’s Observer in an exchange with Henry Porter about civil liberties:
"Threatening actions, or words that incite violence, are generally outlawed, and that is surely right. But the big difference between me and Labour is that I don’t think legislation is the answer to every problem. When I criticise some rap artists, or some companies for that matter, for things they do that I think are against the public interest but that don’t incite violence, that doesn’t mean I want to legislate against them. This is a crucial part of my political philosophy and my belief in social responsibility. As Burke said, politicians should know when to give a leaning, and when to give a law. From this government, it seems, all we ever get are laws. That’s the road to an authoritarian state and I reject it."
There are worries within Britain’s churches, in particular, that any laws might restrict the freedom of Christians to say that, from their interpretation of the Bible, homosexual acts are sinful. The Christian Institute has produced a briefing setting out its concerns.
Matthew Parris has already raised doubts about the need for legislation. He recently wrote: We gays are not so weedy that we can’t take insults. Rowan Atkinson has joined the argument today. Atkinson, of Blackadder and Mr Bean fame, was one of the comedians who led opposition to the Government’s attempt to legislate against incitement to religious hatred. In a letter to today’s Times he writes:
"This “tick the box if you’d like a law to stop people being rude about you” is one way of filling the legislative programme, but there are serious implications for freedom of speech, humour and creative expression. The devil, as always, will be in the detail, but the casual ease with which some people move from finding something offensive to wishing to declare it criminal — and are then able to find factions within government to aid their ambitions — is truly depressing."
Handling the issue for the Conservatives will be our new Justice team. That includes Nick Herbert and David Burrowes. Nick is gay and David is an evangelical Christian. Between them we can hope that they will produce a response that protects gay people from hateful violence but also protects the freedom of Christians to follow traditional biblical teaching as they see it.