Faith groups are misrepresenting sexual equality rules, say critics

By staff writers
9 Jan 2007

Ahead of a rally in opposition to the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) outside parliament tonight (9 January 2007), which protestors predict will attract several thousand participants, supporters of the equalities legislation – from civil rights, religious and secular groups – say that the regulations are being widely misrepresented.

Members of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, an evangelical organisation, have played a major role in coordinating the rally, which will also be backed by Muslim and Jewish groups.

The demonstration coincides with peers discussing a motion put forward by Lord Morrow, calling for the Northern Ireland Regulations to be annulled. A petition of 10,000 signatories will be handed in earlier in the day.

Protestors also want the Queen to intervene to force the government to “rethink” legislation “affecting the whole of the United Kingdom and thereby uphold her coronation pledge which stated that she would 'to the utmost of [her] power maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the gospel'”. However, the monarch does not have the power to block particular items of legislation.

Conservative Christian groups vehemently opposed to equality measures in the provision of goods, services and facilities for lesbian and gay people argue that the Sexual Orientation Regulations discriminate against them by forcing them to endorse lifestyles they disapprove of on grounds of faith.

But yesterday a leading evangelical service agency, the Faithworks Movement, issued a statement backing SORs, claiming that they have been widely misrepresented, and emphasising the Christian Gospel as a message of welcome and hope.

On behalf of the government, Lord Rooker has also responded to accusations about the impact of SORs raised in relation to their initial introduction in Northern Ireland – including allegations made in a controversial newspaper advertisement. The claims were tabled for response by Lord Lester, a supporter of the regulations, in the House of Lords [see below] and were all refuted.

The UK Christian think tank Ekklesia says that the “panic and anxiety” over equalities legislation, which would prevent gay people facing discrimination in public services and in the provision of goods, including hotel or B&B rooms, is a symptom of the demise of Christendom – the era in which particular understandings of the Christian message could be sanctioned for the whole of society.

“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”, says Ekklesia co-director 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.”

Others, including the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) have condemned Christian support for discriminatory practices and the search by some church bodies for ways out of complying.

LGCM’s submission to the government in support of SORs, in June 2006, says that Christian opponents of the regulations are trying to sabotage it through part or wholesale exemptions, and that their attention to the Bible in backing their assertions is partial and selective, going against the main dynamic of the Christian message.

Meanwhile civil rights and equalities organisations have backed SORs and the National Secular Society has said that the tenor of the opposition is “an affront to democracy”. George Broadhead, secretary of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA), described the recent anti-SORs advert in The Times newspaper as “a pack of lies”.

Tony Cross of the evangelical organisation Courage, which used to believe homosexuality to be incompatible with the Gospel, but has since changed its stance, commented recently: “The meaning of the very few references to homosexuality in the Bible are contested by biblical scholars. The new understanding of human sexuality in the last hundred years has fundamentally changed our view of sexuality. [A] more literalist approach to the Bible … is outdated and will have to be replaced by a more realistic attitude of study and interpretation.”

Supporters of the regulations point out that, in any case, the requirements are not for endorsement of particular practices, but are intended to ensure equal treatment irrespective of orientation.

Faithworks leader the Rev Malcolm Duncan said yesterday: “We welcome the SORs as an attempt to ensure that goods and services are delivered inclusively and in non-discriminatory ways. It is right that any organisation receiving public funding should deliver services to genuine public benefit.”

He added: “The proposed SORs are an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the love and grace of Christ. However, 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.”

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Further resources: LGCM submission on SORs (*.PDF file); Faithworks; Hansard; Evangelical leader attacks 'aggressive' opposition to SORs.

On 13 December 2006, Lord Rooker responded to concerns about SORs in the House of Lords. But campaigning groups have continued to quote these fears, in spite of categorical assurances. The exchange was as follows:

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 would require all schools actively to promote homosexual civil partnerships to children from primary school age to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage. [HL447]

Lord Rooker: No. The regulations are not concerned with what is taught in schools. That is rightly a matter for the Department of Education, Northern Ireland.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 would require a printing shop run by a Christian to print fliers promoting gay sex.[HL448]

Lord Rooker: No. It would be entirely within the spirit of the regulations for a printing shop run by a Christian to refuse to print fliers promoting gay sex, so long as that printer also refused to print fliers promoting heterosexual sex outside the realm of marriage.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 would require a family-run bed and breakfast to let out a double room to a transsexual couple, even if the family consider it to be in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their own home.[HL449]

Lord Rooker: No.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 would make it illegal for a heterosexual police officer, fire fighter or member of the Armed Forces to refuse to join a Gay Pride event promoting the homosexual way of life.[HL450]

Lord Rooker: No.

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