By Marcin Goclowski and Jaroslaw Gawlowski
WARSAW, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Polish lawmakers on Wednesday voted in favour of a bill to criminalise "the promotion of underage sexual activity," in a move seen by some as a government effort to court conservative support and which outraged liberals who say the bill aims to ban sex education.
As protesters gathered outside the parliament and in cities across Poland, lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party voted for the bill to go to a parliamentary commission for further work.
"Disgrace for the deputies ... who referred for further work a project punishing sex education with prison," tweeted opposition lawmaker Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, who had earlier raised a motion to have the bill thrown out.
Outside the parliament hundreds of protesters had assembled, brandishing placards such as "Education protects against violence" and "Banning sex education is rape."
"The attempt to limit access to education is a direct attack on all of us," said Anton Lewandowska, 23, from the Ponton Group, a voluntary organisation that provides sex education.
"Many people I know who do sex education are scared to do our work despite the fact that it is a basic right of every person."
Polish schools do not offer formal sex education, instead teaching students how to "prepare for family life." Some cities run by more liberal parties have allowed sexual education programmes in schools, prompting a backlash from the PiS and the Catholic Church.
The PiS won parliamentary elections in Poland last Sunday, but far-right and staunchly Catholic voters also managed to introduce candidates to parliament.
Some political analysts think the PiS, which lost seats in the upper house and won the same number of seats in the lower house as in 2015, wants to show such voters it is the best party to represent them, which may result in the party turning further to the right and to the Church.
Critics accused the PiS of fomenting homophobia during the election campaign, with party officials calling lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights an invasive foreign influence that threatens Poland's national identity.
"They are trying to impose a narrative that we are in a culture and civilization war," Scheuring-Wielgus said, adding the bill is aimed at intimidating and silencing educators and activists.
But newly elected PiS lawmaker Marcin Ociepa said fears that educators may end up behind bars are just an "overinterpretation of the bill" and that he saw nothing bad with the legislation.
"This only says that it is not allowed to encourage a person younger than 15 ... to have sex or to conduct other sexual activities," Ociepa told private radio TOK FM.
Bishop Ignacy Dec of the Swidnica diocese told right-wing newspaper Nasz Dziennik, "it is worrying that some local authorities are introducing to pre-schools and schools sexualisation programmes recommended by the World Health Organization, which just harm children and youths."
Large protests stopped the PiS in previous years from tightening Poland's abortion law which is already one of the most restrictive in Europe.
The fresh social clash underlines the difficulties the PiS faces in pushing through its policies as new politicians from both sides of the spectrum are expected to mount robust challenges.
Poland, European Union's biggest post-communist member, is one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in Europe, but its society is becoming more liberal, and the number of people attending Sunday mass is falling constantly, which may threaten the PiS's conservative agenda.
(Reporting by Marcin Goclowski and Jaroslaw Gawlowski Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw Writing by Alan Charlish Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Matthew Lewis)
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