Twelve Labour MPs defied the government last night to vote in favour of an amendment to the proposed offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The amendment sought to allow “discussion of, criticism of, or expression of antipathy towards conduct relating to a particular sexual orientation, or urging persons of a particular sexual orientation to refrain from or modify conduct according to that orientation.”

It was defeated by 338 to 169.

Five Tory MPs voted against the amendment: Crispin Blunt, John Bercow, Michael Fabricant, Robert Key and Ed Vaizey.

The amendment was touted by activist Christian groups as a protection of religious free speech. It was drafted in consultation with the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

However, the government has given repeated assurances that religious people will continue to have the right to express their homophobic views.

“We are talking about threatening words or behaviour intended to incite hatred against a group of people on the basis of their sexuality,” Justice minister Maria Eagle told MPs.

“That is very narrow and very clear.”

A new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation was a manifesto commitment from the Lib Dems at the last election. Four of their MPs – Colin Breed, Alan Beith, Tim Farron and Greg Mulholland – voted for the amendment.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly voted with the government, which surprised some Westminster watchers.

As a devout Roman Catholic, she has faced persistent questions about her commitment to LGBT equality and her voting record on gay rights.

The rebel Labour MPs were: Joe Benton, Ronnie Campbell, Jim Dobbin, David Drew, Paul Flynn, Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Peter Kilfoyle, Greg Pope, Geoffrey Robinson, Geraldine Smith and David Taylor.

They defied a three-line whip and could face sanctions for voting against the government.

David Cameron did not vote, along with other ‘new’ Tories such as George Osborne, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Theresa Villiers and Grant Shapps.

Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert voted in favour of the amendment.

For the full voting record visit publicwhip.org.uk

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill now moves to the House of Lords.

An amendment outlawing incitement to “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to transgender identity or appearance” was added to the Bill.

Gay equality organisation Stonewall welcomed last night’s vote on the new offence of homophobic incitement.

Chief executive Ben Summerskill told PinkNews.co.uk:

“We are delighted that these protections are now part of the bill, but we recognise that winning the battle wit the traditional opponents of equality in the Lords will never be easy.”