The prospects for Christians under a Labour government

Pastor John Sherwood being told by police officers that he is under arrest.(Photo: YouTube)

What would be the prospects for orthodox Christians, particularly those called to uphold traditional marriage in the public square, under a Labour government led by Sir Keir Starmer?

With the Conservatives riven by infighting, they look set to lose the General Election in 2024 either outright to Labour or to a coalition of Labour and the Scottish Nationalists.

In the past, Christian Today has covered the arrest of street preacher Pastor John Sherwood in Uxbridge in April 2021, the Crown Prosecution Service's decision to bring charges against him under the Public Order Act 1986 after some dithering, and his eventual acquittal.

A district judge at Uxbridge Magistrates' Court upheld the case for the pastor's defence which centred on his freedom "to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority" as set out in Article 10 of the 1998 Human Rights Act.

However, it would not be difficult for a left-wing government to pull the rug from under that defence. It could pass a new incitement to homophobic hatred law which would put homophobia on a par with racism. Under that law, with the complainant's perception of "homophobic hate speech" being put front and centre, Pastor Sherwood's comments in Uxbridge town centre would be prosecuted in the same way as aggravated racial harassment is now.

He did not engage in personal abuse but he did say, on the basis of Genesis 1:27, that the family unit as ordained by God consisted of a father and a mother, not two fathers or two mothers. It was his denial that the contemporary alternatives to the heterosexually married family are equally valid that got him into trouble.

Shortly after his arrest, the Metropolitan Police justified the actions of its officers: "Officers on patrol were flagged down by a member of the public who made them aware of a man allegedly making homophobic comments close to Uxbridge Underground Station. A number of other people also approached the officers with concerns about the man's language."

The Met in particular seem keen to follow up complaints of homophobic comments. A new incitement to homophobic hatred law would give them many more openings to do so.

But surely no government in a Western democracy would pass such a draconian law that would effectively criminalise biblical teaching? In 2008 the then Labour government almost did.

Labour sought to introduce an offence of incitement to homophobic hatred into its Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill carrying a seven-year prison sentence. A former Home Secretary in Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government in the 1980s, David Waddington, successfully introduced a free speech defence into that Bill in the House of Lords.

The "Waddington amendment" stated that the new law must not be used in a way which "prohibits or restricts the discussion of, criticism of or expressions of antipathy towards, conduct relating to a particular sexual orientation, or urging persons of a particular sexual orientation to refrain from or modify conduct relating to that orientation".

The Labour government led by Gordon Brown was most unhappy with this. The very next year, 2009, it tried to get the Waddington amendment struck out through another piece of legislation, the Coroners and Justice Bill. But the Waddington amendment survived after Lord (Geoffrey) Dear, a former Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, persuaded the House of Lords that it was actually helping the police.

He said at the time: "Prior to this House approving the Waddington amendment a year ago, the police regularly received complaints from homosexual groups that exception was taken to remarks that homosexuality was deplored on religious grounds. They were forced to act.

"With the Waddington amendment the police are released from a virtual straight-jacket that was imposed on them before. They can exercise common sense and good judgement on the day and they can police with a light touch."

Lord Dear's comment seems painfully ironic in the light of Pastor Sherwood's arrest in Uxbridge under the present Conservative government, the manner of which Christian Concern described as "brutal" with the preacher, then aged 71, having been aggressively pulled down from a step ladder by a burly police officer.

It would seem in Pastor Sherwood's case that the police were either blissfully unaware of the Waddington amendment or wilfully disregarded it.

Under an incitement to homophobic hatred law introduced by a Labour government in, say, 2026, the police would get what too many of their officers seem to wish for, unfortunately. In that case, Christians saying in the public square what Pastor Sherwood said in 2021 would go to jail.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Lancashire. He is the author of Christians in the Community of the Domepublished by Evangelical Press in 2017.