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Is religious speech on line in Thursday’s U.K. election?

LONDON (BP)–Freedom to criticize homosexuality in the United Kingdom may be on the line when British citizens go to the polls Thursday to elect a new Parliament and a new prime minister.

At issue is a section of British law often known as the Waddington amendment that makes it clear that criticizing homosexuality is not prohibited.

Although all three major candidates for prime minister back “gay rights” in various forms, Conservative Party leader David Cameron is the only one to support the amendment, which was added to a same-sex hate crimes law. Parliament tried but failed to overturn the free speech safeguards last year, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown — the Labour Party leader — said he is committed to try once again to strike the amendment.

The amendment is in the spotlight now because of the recent case of a 42-year-old Baptist, Dale McAlpine, who was arrested April 20 for street preaching against homosexuality in the British town of Workington. According to the Telegraph newspaper, McAlpine was charged with causing “harassment, alarm or distress” after a police officer — who happened to be homosexual — overheard him telling a woman that 1 Corinthians forbids homosexuality. The officer warned him to be quiet, and when he didn’t, he was arrested. He was charged and jailed for seven hours under what is known as the Public Order Act, although his supporters say his speech was protected under the Waddington amendment.

The incident is just an example, some say, of what could become the norm if the Waddington amendment is nixed. Reversing the law “would jeopardize Christians expressing their traditional beliefs on sexual ethics,” Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, based in Newcastle in the U.K., told Baptist Press.

“[T]he parties differ over whether speech like Dale’s should be criminal,” Judge said. “… On the issue of free speech when it comes to traditional beliefs on that one issue, there are clear differences.”

But British voters won’t be electing a social conservative to reside at 10 Downing Street — the prime minister’s residence — no matter which party wins. Instead, conservative Christians in the country who are choosing between the governing Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats will be — as the old saying goes — voting for the “least worst” option.

That’s mainly because the leader of the Conservatives — normally the party with the most socially conservative candidate — is more socially liberal than many past Conservative leaders, such as William Hague, the Conservative leader during the 2001 election. Cameron, who would become prime minister if his party wins a majority of seats, is a supporter of “gay rights” and legalized abortion.

But that doesn’t mean Christians in the U.K. shouldn’t vote, leaders there say.

“There are differences between the parties,” said Judge, whose organization has posted a nonpartisan voting guide.

The Labour Party has been in power since 1997 but in polls trails the Conservative Party, which is hoping to gain enough seats in the 650-member body to form a majority government.

Voters won’t be casting ballots directly for prime minister but instead for their local member of Parliament (MP). Such an election system can lead to various dilemmas for voters, such as having to choose whether to vote for an MP the voter might disagree with in order to cast an indirect vote for the voter’s prime minister of preference.

Among other key differences between the parties:

— Abortion. Although Cameron is pro-choice he does support lowering the current limit on abortion from 24 weeks to 20 or 22 weeks, although he also supports making it easier to have an abortion during those weeks. The Labour’s Brown and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg back the 24 week limit.

— Assisted suicide. Cameron and Brown oppose assisted suicide, while Clegg supports it.

Despite the Conservative Party’s stance supporting the Waddington amendment and free speech, Christians in the U.K. have been particularly frustrated with Cameron’s embrace of the homosexual movement. He supports the current same-sex civil partnerships law — which grants marriage benefits to homosexual couples — and has gone so far as to imply that he supports “gay marriage.” Last year he said, “As far as I am concerned, commitment matters whether it’s between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman.”

The Conservative Party released a document May 3 saying it would “consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage.” But Cameron confused the party’s stance by saying he was “not planning” to change the law.

Additionally, Christians were highly critical of Cameron in April when he kicked a MP candidate out of the party for making comments about homosexuality that would be considered tame in the United States. The candidate, Philip Lardner of Scotland, wrote about homosexuals, “I will not accept that their behaviour is ‘normal’ or encourage children to indulge in it.” Lardner added, “Toleration and understanding is one thing, but state-promotion of homosexuality is quite another.” When news of Lardner’s comments became public, Cameron withdrew the Conservatives’ endorsement and bragged that he “couldn’t have acted quicker.”

“What we have here,” Judge said, “is the major newspapers and broadcasters are, on the whole, more socially liberal than the average Britain on the streets. Because of that, I think David Cameron thinks he has to be seen more socially progressive. For him, one of the areas that he’s chosen to focus upon is certainly the homosexual issue.”

There is, of course, irony that Cameron supports a law related to free speech on the issue of criticizing homosexuality while at the same time not allowing anyone in his party to make such comments.

Lardner’s comments seem “very mild and sensible,” Judge said, but were “enough to get him thrown out of the Conservative Party.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For information about the election from a Christian perspective, visit the Christian Institute’s website at Christian.org.uk.

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  • Michael Foust