Controversial new legislation came into force yesterday providing protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as on the grounds of religion or belief.
The Sexual Orientation Regulations and part 2 of the Equality Act 2006 introduce measures that are on a par with protections already provided on grounds of race and gender.
The regulations mean that business may not refuse to supply a normal services to someone, or treat them less well than others, on grounds of their actual or presumed sexual orientation. Nor can they withhold services on the grounds of their religious conviction.
The regulations come at a time when some Christians have felt they are being discriminated against on the basis of their faith. A survey by the organisation Faithworks suggested that many churches felt they were discriminated against when applying for funding for their projects. The new regulations sought to outlaw such discrimination, and provide additional protections for all religions.
However, many of the same Christians who felt they were being discriminated against also opposed some aspects of the regulations, wanting to maintain rights of Christian businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbian people. Churches and church schools also gained a number of exemptions which allow them to continue discriminating, for example, in favour of Christians over admissions to church schools.
Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a practising Catholic said: "The goal of these regulations is to ensure that when accessing goods, services and facilities, everyone is treated fairly and with respect, no matter what their sexual orientation, religion or belief.
"I am confident that they strike the right balance to some of the most sensitive challenges we face today and tackle the real, everyday problems which have, for too long, been faced by lesbians and gay people. It cannot be right in a decent, tolerant society that a shopkeeper or restaurant can refuse to serve a customer because of their religion. Equally it cannot be right for a school to discriminate against a child because of their parents' sexuality or not to take homophobic bullying as seriously as they should. These are rights that the majority of people take for granted."