Conservative Christians in Britain celebrated a House of Lords vote that approved a free-speech amendment to the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which many Christians fear would hinder their freedom to share the gospel.
The amendment, approved 260 to 111 on October 25, states that prosecutors must prove that offending parties intended to stir up religious hatred. The House of Commons, which earlier passed the bill 303 to 246, will likely consider the amended bill before the end of the year.
The terrorist attacks of September 11 prompted Tony Blair's government to propose the bill in 2001. Then-Home Secretary David Blunkett argued that Britain needed the law because Muslims do not share the same legal protection against religious hatred that Sikhs and Jews do. This first attempt failed after two contentious defeats in the House of Lords. The government faced continued opposition in the House of Lords in early 2005 and aborted a second attempt with the general election approaching.
Current Home Secretary Charles Clarke then wrote a letter of apology to every mosque in the country for failing to pass the legislation in the previous Parliament. Clarke vowed that the new Labor government would not fail a third time.
The Lords amendment changes the bill in critical ways, according to Andrea Minichiello Williams, public policy officer for the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship. The bill had targeted speech "likely to stir up religious hatred," but the amendment removed that phrase. It also nixed a vague ban on "abusive and insulting" speech. The bill will now cover only threatening conduct. Most importantly, the amendment defends free speech and evangelism.
Many Christian and non-Christian groups have resisted the earlier attempts to pass the bill. In early October, a coalition of about 2,000 people representing more than 100 Christian and secular groups gathered in Parliament Square to protest the government's proposals.
Don Horrocks, head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, said pressure from conservative Christians proved significant in dealing the government this defeat. "The size of the majority shows the government that a broad spectrum hears the warnings we have been issuing for the past three years," Horrocks said.
"We now urge the government to consult with the relevant people to get the bill right, which they should have done at the start."
Government officials have hinted that they might seek compromise. But Roger Smith, head of public policy at Christian Action Research and Education, urged allies not to grow complacent. "The [government has] the majority in the House of Commons to overturn these welcome changes. Now is the time for everyone who values freedom of speech and good community relations to appeal to the good sense of members of Parliament to support these new protections."
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