Evangelicals strike more moderate tone over gay rights

By staff writers
12 Sep 2007

The Evangelical Alliance, which claims to represent the majority of Evangelical Christians in the UK, has said it is "encouraging Christians to respond respectfully and in a Christ-like manner" to yesterday’s judgement on Northern Ireland’s Sexual Orientation Regulations.

The High Court in Northern Ireland ruled that a part of the Sexual Orientation Regulations must be removed.

Mr Justice Weatherup said that a provision that protects Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) people from harassment when accessing goods and services should be set aside.

Providers of goods, services and education can still be fined for breaching regulations and withholding goods and services from LGB people, but they cannot be prosecuted for stating their opposition to doing so.

The judge wrote in his 42-page judgment: "The applicants contend that the regulations treat evangelical Christians less favourably than other persons to the extent that they are subject to civil liability for manifesting the orthodox belief in relation to homosexuality," .

"I am satisfied that the regulations do not treat evangelical Christians less favourably than others."

However the judge said that more time should have been set aside for public consultation on the regulations and so the harassment provision should be set aside.

A coalition of Christian groups had been granted permission to seek a judicial review.

The churches and Christian charities who took the legal action are, The Christian Institute; The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland; The Congregational Union of Ireland; The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland; The Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland; The Fellowship of Independent Methodist Churches; and Christian Camping International (a Christian charity specialising in camping and conferences).

The Roman Catholic Church has also supported the legal challenge, fearful of the effect of the regulations on their schools.

Opinion however is divided amongst Evangelicals over the Sexual Orientation Regulations.

The Faithworks movement is amongst those who have previously expressed support for the Regulations. It previously warned of the negative messages that would be given out if Christians tried to gain opt-outs and exemptions for themselves to allow them to withhold goods and services from LGB people. It suggested such opt-outs would run counter to a truly Christian response.

The Evangelical Alliance welcomed the judicial review and the removal of the harassment clause. But in a statement it said it was also "praying that following the decision, Christians’ rights do not appear bigger than their representation of Christ or their commitment to the rights of others."

Stephen Cave, the Alliance’s National Director Northern Ireland, said: “We urge Christians to put more energy, resources and prayers into the province, becoming more familiar with a vibrant church acting with uncompromising love.

“We hope people will know Christ on the streets even more than they know about our legitimate anxieties in Stormont or in court.”

Mr Cave said that although not all Christians supported the review, many are apprehensive that the regulations will clash with their religious liberties.

He said that the Alliance will continue to engage constructively and respectfully, presenting Christians’ views to government.

But he added: “This is also an important opportunity for Christians to think about their responsibilities to other people created in the image of God.

“The contemporary challenge facing not just Christians, but all of us as citizens, is how to balance freedom of conscience with diversity and equality.”

Spokesperson for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement The Revd Martin Reynolds said: "We welcome the courts decision that the SOR’s are in line with the general principles of human rights legislation and do not disadvantage any religious group.

"It was clear that the harassment section would be struck down in keeping with the UK wide regulations. We have consulted closely with government on this issue and will be keeping a careful watching brief to ensure that religious groups do not abuse the exemptions granted in these regulations.

"The existing laws already offer substantial protection against harassment and we are fully participating in the review currently being undertaken by the government.

"We remain deeply saddened that religious groups alone will be allowed to discriminate against lesbian and gay people – it is a shameful mark of distinction."

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