Religious Activists Seek To Repeat BA Victory With Gay Rights Law

Religious groups from the fringes to the mainstream have united this week to launch a ferocious attack on a new law aimed at protecting homosexuals from discrimination.

Buoyed by their success in forcing British Airways to change its uniform regulations to suit the demands of one Christian activist, the new Religious Right is now gunning for the Sexual Orientation (Goods and Services) Regulations, the government promised to introduce in October, but then put off until next April following intense lobbying from religious organisations.

Draft Regulations have however just been tabled for Northern Ireland, to come into effect on 1 January 2007. They state that “It is unlawful for any person concerned with the provision of goods, facilities or services to the public to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation against a person who seeks to obtain or use those goods, facilities or services”. If they are replicated for England and Wales, this would grant gay people the same right to goods and services that disabled people enjoy under the Disability Discrimination Act, that ethnic minorities enjoy under the Race Relations Act, and that religious groups enjoy under Section 46 of the Equality Act 2006.

But religious groups are arguing that these Regulations pose a grave threat to their “freedom of conscience”. The Regulations were attacked in a full page advertisement in the Times on Tuesday which was taken out by a group calling itself Coherent and Cohesive Voice", who describe themselves as “a network of hundreds of Christian leaders in the UK representing hundreds of thousands of voters”.

“SEX”, screams the top of the page in huge letters, before announcing that “the Labour Government are going to decide what is and isn’t acceptable, and then they are going to force their views onto you”. The views that the Labour Government are going to force onto you are listed as follows:

  • Force all schools to actively promote homosexual Civil Partnerships to children (from primary school age) to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage
  • Force a printing shop run by a Christian to print fliers promoting gay sex
  • Force a family run B&B to let out a double room to a transsexual couple, even if the family think it is in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their own home
  • Make it illegal for a heterosexual policeman, fireman or member of the Armed Forces, to refuse to join a Gay Pride event promoting the homosexual way of life.

Most of this is completely untrue.

  • The Regulations do not state anything about how pupils (of any age) should be taught about anything.
  • It seems reasonable that anyone setting up in business should be no more able to refuse printing anything that is lawful for homosexuals than they should for those who are black or Jewish. Imagine the furore if printers who happened to be homosexual refused to serve Christians.
  • The Regulations do not cover transsexuality. But even if the example related to homosexuals if the owner is so sensitive - or indeed bigoted - about such matters and running a business, we do not think that they should be any more permitted to refuse homosexuals or transsexuals going about their lawful business than they should be able to refuse customers on grounds of race, religion or belief.
  • These public services personnel are not being required to 'join' a gay pride event. They are there to perform their jobs. In the case of firemen that includes the dissemination of safety information. The subliminal message seems to be that homosexuals' lives have no value. Alan Wardle, Stonewall's Director of Parliamentary & Public Affairs commented "It seems the advertisers want such public servants to be able to pick and chose who they serve. Taken to its logical conclusion this would mean allowing them to say "no thanks" to answering a 999 call if they found out that the callers were gay."

The advertisement demanded that the Government insert into the Regulations a “conscience clause” saying “Nothing in these regulations shall force an individual to act against their conscience or strongly held religious beliefs.”

George Broadhead of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association branded the advertisement, and the accompanying campaign, as “poisonous” saying that the Christian activists were trying to rob gay people of the fundamental right to be treated justly and fairly. He said: “The insertion of this clause would render the protections meaningless. Anyone can claim to have a conscience. Would it be OK for the BNP to disregard these regulations on the grounds that homosexuality offends their conscience?”

This manipulative and deceitful advertisement is only part of the pressure. As with the BA case, the Christians cudgels have now been taken up by the Daily Mail, which is carrying daily propaganda from Christian leaders about the campaign. On Tuesday, the paper led with a huge front-page headline “Don’t Impose Your Morality” in which it quoted the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham Vincent Nichols (who was instrumental in forcing the Government to back down on its promise to make ‘faith schools’ open up 25% of places to those of other religions or none). Nichols had said in a sermon: “The government must realise that it is not possible to seek co-operation with us while at the same time trying to impose on us conditions which contradict our moral values. It is simply unacceptable to suggest that the resources of faith communities, whether in schools, adoption agencies, welfare programmes, halls or shelters, can work in co-operation with public authorities only if faith communities accept not simply a legal framework but also the moral standards at present being touted by the Government.”

On Wednesday, the Mail carried comments from the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who said that the Church of England’s charities would be “affected” by the rules, which he said would “force” them to give equal treatment to homosexuals. He declared: “It will be the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers.”

The new laws are meant to prevent discrimination against gays. But the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship has said they mean priests could be sued for refusing to bless same-sex unions and Catholics say they will close their adoption agencies rather than give children to gay couples.

Then leaders of the increasingly influential black churches added their voices to the protest, saying that pastors and churchgoers will go to jail rather than accept rules that will mean they must open their meeting halls to gay lobby groups. They fail to mention that many of these buildings have been heavily subsidised by the National Lottery.

Pakistani-born Dr Nazir-Ali said: “I welcome warmly what the Roman Catholic Bishop of Birmingham has said about the Sexual Orientation Regulations. In the proposed Regulations there is no clear exemption for religious belief even though it is widely known that several of the faiths in this country will have serious difficulty. Religion affects every area of life and cannot be reduced to just worship.

Pastor Ade Amooba of Christian Voice in Brixton, South London, said: “Homosexuals are set at liberty to enjoy their way of life. Why does the Government want to take away ours? Christianity is our identity. We will not surrender it. People will not obey these rules, no matter that they are taken to court. We will shut down the youth clubs and welfare projects rather than obey these laws. That will have very damaging effects. We will be losing something valuable.”

George Hargreaves of the Hephzibah Christian Centre in Hackney was even more hysterical and ridiculous: “I have already bought my orange jumpsuit, for no doubt prison awaits us as we fight against the tyranny of the Sexual Orientation Regulations. If opposing this law is to be counted as an act of civil disobedience, then in obedience to God we must act in loving and peaceful civil disobedience.”

Final details of the new Regulations as they will apply to England and Wales have yet to be made public because of delays following a Cabinet row. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a staunch Catholic, is in charge of pushing the regulations through.

There are threats of rebellion in Northern Ireland, which is being used as a test bed for the gay rights Regulations. DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley has protested to Tony Blair amid signs that politically powerful church leaders in the province are preparing to prevent the new laws coming into effect.

Michael Cashman, MEP, an NSS honorary associate (and also a member of the Labour Party’s Executive Committee), commented: “I find it unbelievable and totally unchristian that they want to discriminate on the grounds of someone being gay or lesbian. Any discrimination diminishes the persons who are targeted. The Government must stand firm. Labour has a proud record on equality which must not be sullied by these sordid attempts at ‘blackmail’”.

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said: “This doesn’t bode well for the introduction of faith-based welfare in this country. If the providers use threats of closure to blackmail politicians into giving them what they want, then they should never be allowed near service provision in the first place. And it is clear that they want to impose discrimination on services that would otherwise be provided by secular local authorities to everyone, without question. Religious groups are running amok in the light of the BA decision and the faith schools back down. The Government needs to bring them down to earth pretty sharply.”

Meg Munn, the Deputy Minister for Women and Equalities, commented: “There are a number of misconceptions about what these Regulations will cover and what is being considered. For example, no-one is proposing that schools will have to promote homosexuality or that a priest will have to bless same sex couples. But at the same time, the vast majority of the British public would surely agree that is wrong for a gay teenager to be refused emergency accommodation after being thrown out of their family home on the grounds that they had chosen to tell their parents about their sexuality or for lesbian and bisexual people to be denied access to essential healthcare. It is right that there should be a public debate on these complex and difficult issues, but that debate should be conducted in a calm and measured way, rather than through inaccurate and wild speculation.”

See also: In support of anti-discrimination law