New legislation that reforms the coroner service and criminal justice system contains a measure to protect people from incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In May the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill was approved by Parliament.

It created for the first time an offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

However, an amendment by Tory peer Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, was added to the legislation.

His amendment to the offence of using threatening language with intent to stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation said that urging someone to change their sexuality should not count “of itself” as threatening or as intended to stir up hatred.

While he claimed his amendment was about “free speech,” in effect it gives people leeway to claim they were just following their religious beliefs when inciting others to hate gay, lesbian or bisexual people.

If Christians can argue that their faith gives them a get-out clause, it could make a prosecution more difficult.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, part of the government’s legislative programme for this session of Parliament, contains a clause removing the Waddington amendment.

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill had to become law by May 8th, when prison officers’ right-to-strike provisions expired under an industrial relations procedural arrangement.

For that reason the Waddington amendment was kept in the bill, but ministers made clear they were unhappy with it.

Justice minister Maria Eagle described it as “undesirable and unnecessary; it does not add anything to the law as it would stand without its inclusion.”

A spokesperson for gay equality organisation Stonewall, told PinkNews.co.uk:

“Last year, the House of Lords voted to retain an exemption to the new incitement to hatred protections.

“Stonewall believes this is unnecessary and could mean that a very small number of people of extreme views attempt to avoid prosecution by citing a ‘religious defence’.

“Stonewall is pleased that the government is now seeking to remove this exemption.

“It will mean stronger protection for lesbian, gay and bisexual people from those who stir up hatred against them.”

The new law against incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation is not likely to be used frequently.

Indeed, similar laws against inciting racial hatred have only been used around 20 times in the 30 years since they came into force.