People of faith urged to join the struggle for equality and human rights

By staff writers
13 May 2009

A major London conference this weekend will seek to show that people of faith and those with non-religious beliefs can be united in common purpose and action to eliminate prejudice and discrimination on grounds of sexuality and identity.

The UK government equalities minister, Maria Eagle and Trevor Philips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, will be keynote speakers at the event which will also hear from clergy, trades unionists and other civic and faith representatives.

The 'Cutting Edge' conference on faith, homophobia, transphobia and human rights is managed by a Steering Group representing the Interfaith Alliance UK, the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), and the Trades Union Congress LGBT Committee.

It is sponsored and supported by over 30 other organisations, including the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia - which has been working with evangelical and other Christian groups in developing a positive, affirming approach to human sexuality rooted in the biblical tradition.

The conference takes place on Saturday 16 May and runs from 9.45am to 6.00pm at The Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL.

“Principles of faith are being twisted to foster irrational fears of human rights, sexual diversity and social equality, to pit people of faith, including LGBT people, against all who seek the common good,” say the conference co-chairs, Maria Exall, the Rev Sharon Ferguson, the Rev Richard Kirker and Martin Pendergast.

Marilyn McCord Adams, Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, will be speaking because, she says, “sometimes the Church needs the ‘spirit of this present age’ to liberate it from the spirits of so many past ages. Let’s thank God for human rights and so draw a line under the harm that religions can perpetuate by giving ancient taboos divine authorization!”

The 2009 Faith, Homophobia, Transphobia & Human Rights Conference follows on from a similar successful event in 2007.

Its organisers say it will affirm that in the struggles against homophobia and transphobia, people of faith and those of 'good faith' but no religious creed can be united in a shared quest for equality.

Gathering progressive forces, religious and secular, to promote social justice and cohesion around sexual diversity and gender identity, the organisers emphasise that "the conference will show that convergence across a spectrum of belief and politics on these issues is not just possible but necessary, with speakers from a variety of faith and political perspectives".

The agenda for the conference will include key issues of continuing religious exemptions to equality and employment legislation; the problem of promoting sexual equality and diversity in faith schools and the wider education system and maintaining the equal right of LGBT communities to public services.

The ground-breaking 2007 Faith, Homophobia & Human Rights Conference affirmed and celebrated values of equality, sexual diversity and social justice as rooted in the best of faith traditions and in the integrity of everyone committed to a transformed vision of a fully human society.

Since then, say the organisers of the 2009 event, attacks from anti-equality religious and political campaigners have continued - including attempts to deny LGBT people equality in Goods and Services legislation, including access to some local authority services.

These have "shown how fragile are the protections, and how influenced our political institutions are in policy-pledges by lobbying from conservative and fundamentalist religious bodies," say the backers of Cutting Edge.

Despite the Government’s recent intention to update legislation in the Equality BiIl, widespread and damaging exemptions from equality laws continue to be sought by faith-based institutions.

The 2009 conference will "work for a strategy to build alliances between people of all faiths and none, to defend and extend hard-won legal rights for LGBT people," say the organisers.

"It will show that national and local government, trades unions and professional bodies, faith communities and their agencies, LGBT networks, human rights bodies and those concerned with the law, can develop and promote good practice that will challenge persistent homophobia and transphobia in our society."

Alongside Christian clergy and theologians, humanists and those from other civic and religious groups, Amanullah De Sondy from the Islamic Studies department at the University of Glasgow will be taking part “because I am passionate about human rights and social justice – two pivotal points in Islamic theology and religious practices."

He adds: "That’s why I’ll highlight the significance of diversity in God’s submitted creation through various examples in the Qur’an, in the hope that we’re led by God’s love and not our own narrow minds.”

Giles Fraser, Anglican vicar of Putney, a philosophy lecturer, Guardian columnist and broadcaster, believes that, “We must not allow homophobia to disguise itself as an sort of legitimate religious belief. It isn’t. Homophobia is a sin, and its eradication from churches, mosques and synagogues is one of the most urgent challenges for people of faith in the 21st century.”

A variety of workshops will cover issues including faith schools and education; employment discrimination, transgender, faith and discrimination, Catholics and adoption, developing new means of activism and Jewish and Muslim diversity.

In addition to the organisers - the Interfaith Alliance UK, the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement and the Trades Union Congress LGBT Committee - sponsors of the event include the Equality & Human Rights Commission, BT Openreach, Association of Teachers & Lecturers, Prospect, the Professional Footballers Association, CWU, Consortium of LGBT Voluntary & Community Organisations, USDAW, NASUWT, and the TUC.

Supporting organisations include a:gender, Centre for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality, Ekklesia, Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian & Gay Christians, Gay Police Association, Gay & Lesbian Humanist Association, GLADD [Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation], IDAHO,{International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia], Interfaith Alliance UK, Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, Liberal Judaism, Progressive British Muslims, Roman Catholic Caucas - LGCM, SCM, Schools Out.

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