Christians protest, but gay regulations continue in force

by
11 January 2007

by Pat Ashworth

Making their voices heard:above and below: demonstrators opposed to the new equality regulations outside Parliament on Tuesday night REUTERS

Making their voices heard:above and below: demonstrators opposed to the new equality regulations outside Parliament on Tuesday night REUTERS

AN ATTEMPT to annul the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland), which came into force in the province on 1 January, was defeated in the House of Lords on Tuesday evening by 199 to 68.

The new regulations, known as SORs, outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation (News, 22 November). They are due to come into force in England, Scotland, and Wales in April.

A protest group, noted by the Lords as “small but vocal”, demonstrated outside Parliament before and during the two-and-a-half-hour debate. The demonstration, and a 10,000-signature petition delivered to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, were principally organised by Christian Concern for Our Nation (CCFON), a group that describes itself as “an activity of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship Public Policy Unit”.

The petition said that the regulations would “force Christians to facilitate and encourage the practice of homosexual relationships, and will force them to support the view that homosexual relationships are equivalent in worth and moral standing to heterosexual relationships”. It argued that, under the SORs, it would be legally possible for certain categories of people to be forced actively to condone and promote sexual practices that it believes the Bible teaches are wrong.

Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, which is bringing a case to the High Court in March seeking to stop the regulations from becoming law, described the SORs as “a charter for suing Christians. The Government is wrong to pick on religious people simply because of their religious beliefs on homosexual practice.”

But, written answers in the House of Lords on 13 December to five questions to the Government on the effect of the legislation made it clear that schools would not be required “actively to promote homosexual partnerships to children from primary-school age to the same degree that they taught the importance of marriage”.

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The Government further clarified that a printing shop run by a Christian would not be obliged to print flyers promoting gay sex; a family-run b. & b. would not be obliged to let out a double room to a transsexual couple, if the family consid-ered it to be in the best interests of their children to refuse it; and it would not be illegal for a heterosexual police officer, fire-fighter, or member of the Armed Forces to refuse to join a gay-pride event.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews protested strongly at a headline in the Daily Mail, which suggested that it had been working in concert with groups opposed to the regulations. It said it had complied with a request from the paper for a statement, and had given one that had been “clear and balanced”. The statement read: “The SOR will provide a further platform to combat discrimination in this country. It must be possible for people to live their lives in the manner in which they choose as long as it does not impinge upon the rights of others.”

The TUC urged ministers to stand firm against the calls from “religious bigots who want to continue discriminating against individuals solely because they are gay”.

The TUC urged ministers to stand firm against the calls from “religious bigots who want to continue discriminating against individuals solely because they are gay”.

Statements from Christian groups such as the Evangelical Alliance (EA) and CARE were measured. The Revd Joel Edwards, the EA’s general director, expressed concerns that SORs could threaten religious and civil liberties, and that measures to combat harassment “could be too loosely interpreted and prevent freedom of conscience”.

After the debate, he said that the EA would continue to hold the Government to account on its assurances that it would protect the rights of religious groups.

CARE’s director of parliamentary affairs, Daniel Boucher, called on the Government to seek to generate a balance that would hold in tension rights about both sexual orientation and religious liberty.

The leader of Faithworks, the Revd Malcolm Duncan, described the demonstrators’ approach as “virulent and aggressive”. He said: “Vociferous opposition, a lack of constructive dialogue, and threats of civil disobedience mean that the Church is in danger of sounding homophobic, and is doing little to give itself a credible voice.”

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) said that it was particularly disturbed by the representations made by religious groups which implied that their views were the only valid interpretation of Christian belief.

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These matters were under intense debate in virtually all quarters of Christendom and other religions, said the Revd Richard Kirker, the president of LGCM: “A small group of fundamentalist Christians have led a wicked campaign of disinformation about these regulations, making claims that anyone who bothered to read them could see were false.”

The Christian think tank Ekklesia stated that the “panic and anxiety” over equality legislation, which would prevent gay people from facing discrimination, was a symptom of the demise of Christendom.

“The idea that all, or even the majority of, Christians support the extreme claims and views of many opponents of the fair and reasonable Sexual Orientation Regulations is false,” said the co-director of Ekklesia, Simon Barrow. “It is deeply sad that people backing tonight’s protest seem to be associating the gospel with fear and prejudice — when those were precisely the things Jesus challenged in his co-religionists.”

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd George Cassidy, voted in favour of annulling the regulations. He reminded the Lords that the C of E had already submitted its views on points that needed to be safeguarded with reference to the parallel regulations for Great Britain. Whatever the outcome of the debate, it was crucial that the serious issues raised by Christians and other religious leaders were adequately dealt with, before the rest of the regulations for the UK were finalised, he said.

Ministers and officials in Northern Ireland should have taken more time to engage in detail with Churches and others, Bishop Cassidy suggested. “It frankly beggars belief that provisions on harassment were inserted at the last minute and without warning. It is not enough to say that harassment is a bad thing, which it undoubtedly is.” The “hastily prepared regulations” ran the risk of presenting significant numbers of people with the choice of complying with the law or with their religiously informed conscience, he said.

The Bishop questioned the omission of exceptions for faith schools, asking: “Is a Roman Catholic school that teaches the traditional Catholic view [on marriage] to be put at risk of legal challenge?

“If it is not the Government’s intention, the regulation should have made that position clearer. The potential for bringing such claims risks putting schools in an unnecessary position. There is absolutely no

case for this, when, in practice, the whole area of sex- and relationship-education is being handled sensitively within the present, very carefully balanced, statutory framework.”

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Lord Eames, the former Primate of All Ireland, also expressed concerns about the manner in which the legislation had been put through in Northern Ireland. Bishops in the province believed that part of that process, the Orders in Council, was a denial of rights.

“Current procedures place some of us in an impossible situation, where we agree with large sections of the legislation — where we agree with the spirit of it, and recognise that it has to do with human dignity and equality — but cannot do otherwise than challenge other parts of it,” he said.

Lord Eames complained that the consultation period (29 July-25 September 2006) had been during the holidays, when “anything akin to a full response was impossible”. The Churches had played a vital part

in charities, adoption procedures, education, and now equality issues, and did not have to defend this, or the voice they had given to the population, he said. But, while

much of the legislation in these areas was to be welcomed, equality was controversial, and needed closer scrutiny.

In the Lords’ debate, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, and the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, joined Bishop Cassidy in voting for annulling the regulations; the Bishop of Worcester, Dr Peter Selby, and Lord Harries of Pentregarth (the former Bishop of Oxford) voted against.

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