Religious groups opposed to homosexuality have failed in their attempt to encourage British peers to scrap new rules providing lesbian and gay people with the same protection against discrimination as have been enjoyed by faith groups since 1998.
Lord Morrow's call to annul the regulations, which have applied in Northern Ireland since 1 January 2007, was defeated last night (9 January 2007) in the House of Lords by 199 votes to 68.
The Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) are due to be implemented across the United Kingdom by April this year.
Lord Morrow is a member of the Rev Ian Paisley‚Äôs hard-line Democratic Unionist Party. He had argued that the rules discriminated against those opposed to homosexuality on religious grounds.
But Northern Ireland Minister and government spokesperson Lord Rooker said that it would be "quite wrong" to elevate the rights of any one group above those of another - which is what the protestors have effectively been seeking, say critics.
SORs concern the fair provision of goods facilities and services to all, and have been welcomed by mainstream civic and religious groups, including the evangelical service agency Faithworks.
Lord Morrow claimed: "The regulations make it possible for homosexual activists to sue people who disagree with a homosexual lifestyle because of their religious beliefs. [They] threaten to override the conscience and free speech of Christians and others who object to homosexual practice."
This is flatly denied by the government, which has sought to refute a number of oft-quoted misrepresentations of the legislation ‚Äì including the mistaken idea that it would compel people to print gay literature or promote ‚Äòthe gay lifestyle‚Äô.
The style, tenor and content of the ‚Äòanti‚Äô campaign has been widely condemned. The Rev Malcolm Duncan said on Monday that ‚Äúvociferous 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.‚Äù
Meanwhile, inside the House of Lords debate, Labour peer Lord [Chris] Smith ‚Äì a member of the Christian Socialist Movement ‚Äì also expressed puzzlement and disappointment that anti-equality arguments have been advanced in the name of the Christian message.
He declared: "It seems to me‚Ä¶ that what they (the opponents of the regulations) are arguing for is quite simply the right to discriminate and the right to harass. And that those arguments are being made in the name of Christianity."
Supporters of the anti-SORs protest had predicted that many thousands would attend their torch-lit rally outside parliament. In the event the turnout was 2-3,000 - but just 68 opponents in the House turned up to vote.
There was also a counter-demonstration organized by the human rights group OutRage, which pointed out that no mainstream religious organizations had backed the anti-SORs rally.
Neil Partridge, a gay Christian, told a BBC reporter: ‚ÄúI think some of the people at this demonstration need to listen to the other side of the argument.‚Äù
He continued: ‚ÄúEveryone has a right to their faith but is it fair to say to someone 'you can't share a bed in our hotel because you are gay'? A hotel is a business, surely‚Ä¶ I think the recent law is a good thing.‚Äù
A High Court judicial review against the SOR regulations in Northern Ireland, brought by the Christian Institute pressure group, will now be heard in March 2007.