In 2008 the UK was saved from a new blasphemy law

In 2008 the UK was saved from having a new blasphemy law imposed when former Home Secretary David Waddington successfully persuaded the House of Lords to include a clause in the Criminal Justice Act that was to become known as the Waddington amendment.

Last Friday Lord Waddington died. Five days later the Crown Prosecution Service sought to undo his work by telling a magistrates' court in Bristol that verses from the King James Bible quoted by two street preachers when hecklers asked them about homosexuality and Islam "must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter".

After two of the street preachers were convicted, their solicitor Michael Phillips stated: "This prosecution is nothing more than a modern-day heresy trial – dressed up under the public order act."

The amendment David Waddington successfully persuaded parliament to include in the 2008 Criminal justice Act stated:

“Protection of freedom of expression (sexual orientation)”.

In this Part, for the avoidance of doubt, discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices is not to be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.

The then government made four attempts to either remove or repeal the clause, but was eventually forced to concede defeat in November 2009. However, in April the following year Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to rip up the Waddington amendment if his Labour Party won the general election the following month. They lost and the Waddington amendment remained.

The dangers of Homophobia and Islamophobia

David Waddington proposed this amendment because he saw the danger in what was in effect a new blasphemy law that would require people to sign up to a particular set of beliefs. As politicians began espousing political correctness – championing the rights of certain groups at the expense of others – a vital dividing line was being crossed between protecting people and protecting ideas. Terms such as “Islamophobia” and “homophobia” were beginning to be widely used, not just “rightly” to stand up against anti-Muslim hatred and hatred of gay people, but also to prevent any criticism or even discussion of their beliefs and lifestyle.

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He recognised that this dual usage was intolerant and fundamentally undermined some of the UK’s most important historic values such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In a 2009 article for the Guardian defending his amendment against government attempts to repeal it, he particularly drew attention to the impact this would have on Christians:

“There have been cases of street preachers threatened by the police for reading from the Bible. Not so long ago five officers approached a church worker as he handed out invitations to an Easter service and seized them for examination, citing allegations of homophobia. Not surprisingly they contained no reference to sexuality and the police dropped the matter. But this case should set alarm bells ringing in the ears of all who care about free speech.”

He added that:

“In light of these incidents it is at best naive to suggest that a safeguard is either unnecessary or undesirable. As Labour MP Tom Harris has said, removing the free speech protection would give ‘a green light to all those who believe they can silence anyone who disagrees with them’."

The law should protect people not beliefs

Lord Waddington prophetically saw that if it became a criminal offence to criticise a particular set of beliefs – in this instance the claims advanced by gay lobby groups - then criticism of other beliefs which their adherents also claimed were indisputable facts could be criminalised too. This was a position which taken to its logical conclusion would justify Islam’s apostasy law. With irrefutable logic he made this point to the House of Lords when the government sought to repeal his amendment a year after it had been passed, telling them:

It is up to the Government to show why there is this urgency to scrap the free speech safeguard without waiting to see whether in practice it causes prosecutors or anyone else the slightest difficulty. Some have gone on to argue that this offence is more like that of race hatred than the offence of religious hatred. Religion, they say, is a matter of choice, but sexual orientation, like race, is wished on one. Many Muslims who talk of punishment for apostasy would deny that religion is a matter of choice, but even if it were, the assertion would get us precisely nowhere. What possible relevance does the alleged immutability of sexual orientation have to the question of whether the discussion of sexual behaviour should be allowed under the law or banned on pain of seven years’ imprisonment? The answer, of course, is none.”

As events this week have shown, his warnings were disturbingly prophetic. Although the then government failed in its attempts to repeal his free speech clause, there have been repeated attempts to introduce the same restrictions by the back door without parliamentary approval. As we report elsewhere in Christian Action, this very week two Christian street preachers were convicted by Bristol magistrates of religiously aggravated harassment when they quoted from the Bible after being asked provocative questions about Islam and the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics by hecklers.

David Waddington foresaw those dangers and sought to safeguard the law from being misused. Above all he understood that the liberties that are cherished by Christians are important safeguards for members of all faiths and even for atheists. In 2008 he persuaded parliament that there was a danger of creating what was a new blasphemy law that prohibited any criticism of certain beliefs and lifestyles. In 2017 the Crown Prosecution Service in effect sought to introduce just such a blasphemy law by persuading magistrates that it was a “criminal” act to quote from certain parts of the Bible.