Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips spoke last night about the danger of “criminalising religious beliefs” at an event debating the conflict between LGBT equality and freedom of speech.
The packed event, hosted by gay social networking group Village Drinks, was held at London club No 4 Hamilton Place.
Phillips debated against cabinet minister Angela Eagle, who is the only out lesbian in parliament. The debate was chaired by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill.
Eagle argued: “I don’t think that equality damages freedom of speech; in order to have a much more profound freedom we need more equality.”
“Equality has become an Orwellian word,” responded Phillips. “We are in grave danger of turning thought into crime.
“Is it wrong to criminalise the giving of offence; is it right to criminalise disapproval?”
“I’m not in favour of thought crimes,” responded Eagle, who is the cabinet minister for pensions.
“But I’m not in favour of hate preaching either. I think that when you protect a minority you present a social solidarity.”
Addressing the issue of freedom of speech, Eagle added: “If people feel secure in their place in society then maybe they’ll take less offence to things that are said.”
The debate moved on to the issues of gay adoption and marriage:
“The state has a vested interested in heterosexual marriage,” commented Phillips, who in the past has criticised gay adoption and accused gay rights activists of intolerance towards Christians.
Following David Cameron’s apology for Section 28 earlier this year, she argued that the gay rights agenda undermines marriage and has called homosexuality a “lifestyle choice”.
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“I think that civil partnerships are a good thing,” retaliated Eagle. “Yet Melanie here thinks that it undermines marriage; I don’t think that any of my heterosexual friends who came to my wedding day felt that their own marriage was compromised.”
One Village Drinks member told PinkNews.co.uk: “I think that freedom of speech is important but when you are in a position like Melanie’s and you’re read by millions of people you have a responsibility.
“I think that the debate highlighted the clash between church and state,” another guest told Pinknews.co.uk.
Putting this point to Melanie Phillips herself, the Daily Mail journalist told us: “I don’t think that separating church and state would have any benefit in reference to what have talked about tonight.
“For some things I think it might help but certainly not for these issues.”
Another guest told PinkNews.co.uk: “I think that it is essential that gay people have exactly the same rights as straight people, especially when it comes to things like hospital visitation rights and taxes. I don’t think that Melanie thinks that is the case.”
Village Drinks founder Neil Spring told PinkNews.co.uk: “I’m really very proud to host this lively debate about the issue of equality.
“I think that Melanie is a force to be reckoned with. It’s really good for gay people to have the chance to question her; even though I’m sure that her answers won’t satisfy everyone.”
Despite a number of heated comments, the crowd remained calm throughout. “I’m surprised no one heckled her,” one guest commented.