MPs will debate the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill tomorrow, which includes a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Ann Widdecombe, a Roman Catholic former Tory minister, today defended her opposition to the bill.

A small group of Christian MPs are attempting to weaken the proposal by introducing an amendment allowing:

“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.”

Ms Widdecombe, who is stepping down from the Commons at the next election, told the Daily Mail:

“For the first time in our history you can have a policeman knocking on your door not for something you have done but for an opinion you have expressed and that should be totally contrary to the British way of life.”

The government and the frontbenches of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives both support the legislation, but MPs from the three main parties have signed up to the amendment.

Labour MP Jim Dobbin said: “We are not having a go at the gay community but are trying to protect ministers of religion who might want to preach from the pulpit or express concerns in other ways.”

In an interview with PinkNews.co.uk Justice minister Maria Eagle said that Christians will continue to have the right to express their homophobic views.

“If you are a preacher and on Sunday morning you tell your sermon of your beliefs and the beliefs of your denomination about gay people then that’s different to going and standing outside a gay club and using threatening words and behaviour,” she said.

“The intent is the key. That is very clearly unacceptable and that’s where we are pitching the offence.”

So far six Tory, two Lib Dem and three Labour MPs are supporting the amendment.

They are: Lib Dems Colin Breed and Alan Beith, Conservatives Bob Spink, Philip Hollobone, Edward Leigh, Philip Davies, Stephen Crabb and Ann Widdecombe and Labour MPs David Taylor, Geraldine Smith and Jim Dobbin.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has backed the new law.

“Incitement of homophobic hatred goes beyond mere criticism or what some consider offensive,” he said today.

“It’s about stopping the vile words that prompt violence.

“No one is suggesting we should lock up comics whose jokes offend or curb criticism from the pulpit.

“This is about song lyrics that urge others to kill or websites and publications that falsely peddle inflammatory myths as fact.

“It’s essential we balance freedom of speech against any need for anti-incitement legislation.

“Having looked at the government’s proposals we think they have struck the right balance, the Commission is persuaded the proposals are fair and needed.”