(CNSNews.com) - Christian organizations in Britain are uneasy about government plans to outlaw "incitement to homophobic hatred," an offense that could carry a prison term of seven years.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw told parliament this week that the government wants to extend existing prohibitions against racial and religious incitement, to cover "'homophobic" conduct.
"It is a measure of how far we have come as a society in the last 10 years that we are now appalled by hatred and invective directed at people on the basis of their sexuality," he said.
"Homophobic abuse, lyrics and literature are every bit as abhorrent to those concerned as material inciting hatred based on race or religion, and have no place in our communities," Straw added.
Christian groups who believe homosexual behavior is wrong are concerned about the possible implications.
Unless the new law is clearly defined, said Evangelical Alliance head of public affairs Dr. Don Horrocks, "there is a real risk of free speech being severely curtailed and people consequently feeling afraid to engage in legitimate debate."
Horrocks said the alliance, a 161-year-old organization representing British evangelical Christians, believed existing law was sufficient when dealing with offenses relating to sexuality and religion.
It would want to see appropriate definitions built into any proposed legislation to make it clear what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable speech.
The Christian Institute, a conservative evangelical organization, warned that the law would be used to target Christians.
"Reasonable statements of Christian belief are often characterized as 'hatred' by people who strongly disagree with them," it said. "In a democratic society people should be free to express disagreement without fear of censure from the state."
Existing criminal law in Britain prohibits acts of violence, harassment and threats against all individuals, including homosexuals.
Stonewall, a homosexual-rights activist group, welcomed the news, saying the proposed new law would help to "deter extremists who stir up hatred against lesbian and gay people."
"These protections aren't about preventing people expressing their religious views in a temperate way," Ben Summerskill, the group's chief executive, said in a statement.
"However, we refuse to accept any longer that there's no connection between extreme rap lyrics calling for gay people to be attacked, or fundamentalist claims that all gay people are pedophiles, with the epidemic of anti-gay violence disfiguring Britain's streets," he said.
Stonewall recently released the results of a survey which it said found that "sixty five per cent of lesbian and gay pupils [at British secondary schools] have experienced homophobic bullying."
In the U.S., the House of Representatives last May passed legislation that seeks to "provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes" involving "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability."
A parallel bill in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) earlier this year, is currently before the Judiciary Committee.
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