A Conservative Member of Parliament has said that anti-extremism powers should be used against Christian teachers who don’t agree with gay marriage. Christian groups said that the comments prove that the government’s new anti-extremist orders, designed to tackle Islamic extremism, will be used against anyone who disagrees with liberal orthodoxy.
In an effort to tackle radicalism the Prime Minister David Cameron announced a slew of measures in May. These included banning orders for groups who use hate speech in public places but whose actions fall short of prohibition, and Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) to prevent imams from radicalising young people.
Both Christian and secular groups protested against the planned new powers on the grounds that they diminish freedom of speech – according to the Telegraph, the National Secular Society branded the plans one of the biggest threats to freedom of expression ever seen in the UK. Christian groups were also concerned that the orders could effectively criminalise aspects of Christian doctrine, although those concerns were at the time dismissed.
However, Mark Spencer, MP for Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, has given Christians new grounds for concern. In response to an email from a constituent seeking reassurance over the EDOs, Mr Spencer bizarrely made the case that they would somehow broaden freedom of expression, writing:
“I believe that everybody in society has a right to free speech and to express their views without fear of persecution.
“The EDOs will not serve to limit but rather to guarantee it: it is those who seek to stop other people expressing their beliefs who will be targeted.
“Let me give you an example, one which lots of constituents have been writing about – talking about gay marriage in schools. The new legislation specifically targets hate speech, so teachers will still be free to express their understanding of the term ‘marriage’, and their moral opposition to its use in some situations without breaking the new laws.
“The EDOs, in this case, would apply to a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong.”
Campaigners are, perhaps understandably, horrified by the missive.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute said: “I am genuinely shocked that we have an MP supporting the idea of teachers being branded extremists for teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman. This is exactly the kind of thing we’ve been warning about.
“The Government says we’ve got nothing to worry about from their new extremism laws, but here is one of its own MPs writing to a constituent saying EDOs would stop teachers teaching mainstream Christian beliefs.”
He added: “Ten years ago the Conservatives opposed Tony Blair’s unpopular law against ‘inciting religious hatred’, saying it jeopardised free speech – yet here they are seeking to bring in an even worse law.
“EDOs will be a gross infringement of free speech and undermine the very British values they claim to protect.”
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society said: “If EDOs really could be used to prevent teachers from talking about same-sex marriage, unless they are inciting violence, they are an even greater threat to freedom of expression than I had feared.
“To suggest that EDOs guarantee freedom of expression [as Mark Spencer suggests] is not just inaccurate, it is the opposite of the truth; they are the largest threat to freedom of expression I have ever seen in Britain.
“The spreading of hatred is far too vague a concept to be the basis of legal sanctions, and would be worryingly open to misuse, particularly by ideological opponents.”
This is not the first time that an MPs letter to constituents has caused consternation on this subject. Earlier in the year the Chancellor George Osborne wrote to his constituents to reassure them that the Orders would be used on those who “spread hate but do not break the law.” He explained that they would cover any activity deemed to “justify hatred” against people on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
But Rev Dr Mike Ovey, principle of Oak Hall Theological College in London, a training centre for Church of England clergy responded: “We don’t know what British values are other than whatever Theresa May decides on the particular Monday when she wakes up and has to make one of these orders.
“Having an inclusive definition is hopeless from a legal point of view. Is a police officer going to listen to me saying that Jesus is the only way in a Muslim part of the East End?”