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Switzerland votes on new law against homophobia

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Geneva (AFP)

Switzerland votes in a referendum on Sunday on a new law against homophobia that is opposed by the populist rightwing Swiss People's Party (SVP).

The new law would widen existing legislation against discrimination or incitement to hatred on ethnic or religious grounds to include sexual orientation.

Campaigner Jean-Pierre Sigrist, founder of an association of gay teachers, said it might have stopped him getting beaten up outside a bar in Geneva four decades ago.

"And maybe I would not have been laughed at when I went to the police," the 71-year-old told AFP.

The change was passed by the Swiss parliament in 2018 but critics, who believe it will end up censoring free speech, have forced a referendum on the issue.

Polls close at noon (1100 GMT) and results are expected in the early afternoon.

Eric Bertinat, an SVP local lawmaker in Geneva, told AFP that he believed the law was "part of an LGBT plan to slowly move towards same-sex marriage and medically assisted reproduction" for gay couples.

Marc Frueh, head of the Federal Democratic Union of Switzerland (EDU), a small party based on Christian values, has called it a "censorship law".

But Sigrist said it would help counter growing levels of intolerance against gay people.

Sigrist said he supports freedom of expression, "but not the freedom to say anything at all".

All of Switzerland's major parties except the SVP, the biggest political force in parliament, support the law.

- 'No to Special Rights!' -

Under the new law, homophobic comments made in a family setting or among friends would not be criminalised.

But publicly denigrating or discriminating against someone for being gay or inciting hatred against that person in text, speech, images or gestures, would be banned.

The government has said it will still be possible to have opinionated debates on issues such as same-sex marriage, and the new law does not ban jokes -- however off-colour.

"Incitement to hatred needs to reach a certain level of intensity in order to be considered criminal in Switzerland," Alexandre Curchod, a media lawyer, told AFP.

But he admitted that there could be exceptions "if it can be shown that, under the cover of artistic production or joking, someone is in fact engaging in incitement".

Gay rights campaigners are divided over the legislation.

A group called "No to Special Rights!" is opposed, arguing that the gay community does not need special protection.

Opinion polls show that the Swiss as a whole are broadly in favour of the law, but that the margin between supporters and opponents has narrowed in recent months.

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