It was an ugly scene more reminiscent of the 1957 Little Rock Nine than a movement on the right side of history. A mother shielded her young daughter through a jeering picket line that pointed and shouted “Shame! Bigot!”

Uniformed police kept a low profile but stayed until all visitors to Melbourne’s CrossCulture Church of Christ were inside. Just one man reacted to the taunts. “You don’t know where I’ve come from!” he shot back visibly upset and walked away to cool off before slipping inside.

They had come to watch the Australian Christian Lobby’s “Defining Marriage” panel, broadcast to more than 500 churches across Australia. But only this church had a protest, it being on Equal Love Victoria’s patch and down the road from the Lygon Street restaurant they harassed Tony Abbott at earlier this year.

Inside, senior pastor Rob Keller told visitors to respect that they may be sitting next to someone with a different view on gay marriage or marriage equality, making a point to use the term preferred by those protesting outside. In this church, noted for its multiculturalism, refugee advocacy and Muslim outreach, all were welcome. It even counts ex-gay members who controversially claim to have left behind homosexuality.

CrossCulture isn’t a member of ACL. Keller said the church took the position that marriage should excluded same-sex couples, but the decision to air the ACL broadcast was to help inform voters about the issues and encourage debate.

Calling it a debate was misnomer, as everybody invited by the ACL had the same view. “Jesus’ view on sex was that it was not simply a matter of personal self-indulgence,” pastor Dr Allan Meyer said. “Everybody is called in Jesus’ thinking to see sex as an issue that was created for the purpose of marriage and everybody else is called to a life of chastity and I know that creates challenges for everyone of us, heterosexual and same-sex attracted.”

John Anderson, former Nationals leader, called for civility and respect for freedom of speech and belief, saying that in a pluralist society with separated church and state “we cannot impose our will on others, but we have both the absolute right to put forward our world view as do everybody else, and lastly that it be respectfully heard and considered”.

The West is in deep trouble, Anderson argued, and Australia should reject the argument that it is falling behind on a human rights issue. The countries that did go in that direction were just “a few isolated communities, in a particular point in time, that just happened to be in the West, a culture that’s lost its way, cut itself free from its moorings and is very unsure what it believes in and at the same time is evidently in serious trouble”. Christians acting true to their beliefs were being loving, he asserted, like when Christians ended slavery and called on people of faith to pay no attention to the tag of homophobia.

Anderson added that Christians had a duty to speak up for the children that would be raised without a mother or a father and “commodified” under same-sex parenting, which was the inevitable result of gay marriage.

Family law scholar professor Patrick Parkinson said it was hard to do research on such children as there were so few available today, but what research there was troubled him. As did the repercussions of publishing research that contradicted the same-sex agenda. He claimed Christians in countries that were debating or had already passed gay marriage laws were losing their jobs for “private” statements about their beliefs on Facebook.

An audience member questioned if homosexuals automatically go to hell, to which nervous laughter was followed by now routine comparisons to adultery, alcoholism, sex addiction and compulsions to incest.

There were no gay voices in the debate to speak to that struggle, as invited News Ltd columnist and devout Catholic Christopher Pearson had to pull out of the event for ill health.

There were no further clashes outside CrossCulture, but the visitors held back a bit after the debate anyway.

Equal Love Victoria co-ordinator Ali Hogg told Crikey she wasn’t one of the protesters shouting “bigot”, but she understood the anger behind the taunts. “We wanted to send a message that they can’t steer out their bigotry freely. The Australian Christian Lobby are a far right-wing minority on this issue and we don’t think they should have the confidence to come out and have these forums aired across the country.”

It wasn’t about religion or the targeted church, Hogg said, just the ACL and its agenda.