This weekend I have been reminded of the reason why my amendments to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill need to be supported. It was not the usual outburst of hostile abuse which has filled my inbox and Twitter feed but the report on Friday of a street preacher in Cambridge.
Whilst he was speaking to the public about marriage a member of the crowd called the police because, "Anyone who believes in man/woman only marriage should be sent to jail. Equality overrides free speech and your views are homophobic, intolerant and very very offensive. Nobody should be allowed to believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman in the 21st Century, we're calling the police and we're calling them now."
The street preacher was filmed on mobile phones, as the small crowd declared they had all of the 'evidence to put me in jail.'
Two police officers duly arrived and they were shown their 'evidence'. A police officer then came over and listened intently to the preacher's words. He preached about a Housing Manager who lost his job and was taken to court because he said on his Facebook page that "Gay marriage in church would be an equality too far". Mr. Smith won his the case in court based on the grounds of free speech."
He shouted to passers by: "Many politicians and people in Britain believe marriage is only between a man and a woman. Even the law set by the Government states marriage is only between a man and a woman. 600,000 people have signed the Coalition for Marriage petition. Only 64,000 people have signed the petition to redefine the institution."
Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the police retreated and went away. However it was a close call, and this even before the law has been changed. The problem is that the Bill risks fermenting such attacks on freedom of speech. The Bill creates a state orthodoxy which gives succour to the intolerant baying crowd or the politically correct council in discriminating against supporters of traditional marriage.
But you don't have to go to Cambridge to feel the chill wind of intolerance to free speech and conscience. Come to Westminster and view the proceedings of the Marriage Bill in the Commons. The Labour Party has not been content in refusing to allow any dissenters on the Bill Committee but has now imposed a party whip on most of the amendments due to be debated today.
You will see the irony of Labour whips denying their MPs the freedom to vote according to their consciences for measures designed to protect the freedom of their constituents' consciences.
It does not bode well for the future. For the charity which is based on a support for traditional marriage and wants to hire a council building. Will the local authority, exercising its public sector equality duty tolerate such a charity in their building? Or will the registrar be allowed the freedom to conscientiously object to registering a same sex marriage when another registrar is available? Or will the teacher be free to not endorse or promote same sex marriage in their classroom?
My amendments today give MPs the opportunity to give clarity and protection for freedom of speech and conscience that are under threat from the Marriage Bill. For example, we need the Equality Act to make clear that a reasonably expressed belief in traditional marriage should not lead to discrimination. And the Cambridge incident highlights the need for the Public Order Act to clarify that traditional marriage supporters should not be criminalised. MPs who voted in favour and against the principle of the Bill are supporting my amendments. We have the opportunity today and tomorrow to uphold the fine British traditions of free speech, tolerance and marriage. I hope we don't miss it.