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Gay equality law will undermine religious belief, claims bishop

Printer-friendly version By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent, Telegraph
(Filed: 03/06/2006)

Hotels and bed and breakfasts could face prosecution for turning away homosexual couples under new government proposals to protect gays and lesbians from being denied "goods, facilities and services" because of their sexual orientation.

The proposed regulations, which could also affect shops that refuse to offer wedding lists for same-sex couples, are being introduced after complaints of discrimination by the homosexuals.

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Lord Mackay of Clashfern
The proposals were attacked yesterday by a former Lord Chancellor and a senior Church of England bishop, who warned that they would hit Christian businesses, charities and faith schools.

The Sexual Orientation (Provision of Goods and Services) Regulations, which are out for public consultation until Monday, will make discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation illegal in the same way as race or gender.

They could affect schools that are accused of failing to deal with homophobic bullying as they would other bullying, or golf clubs that turn down applications for membership on the grounds that the applicants are gay. But Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, said in a statement issued by the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship that the proposals could also undermine people's rights to exercise their religious beliefs.

The fellowship said that while churches might be granted exemptions, the new legislation could have a detrimental impact on a wide range of religious individuals and organisations.

For example, it claimed, teachers could fall foul of the law if they failed to promote events such as gay and lesbian month or did not give homosexuality equal prominence in lessons to heterosexuality.

It also warned that, under the new regulations, it could become illegal for Christian conference and retreat centres to refuse bookings from gay and lesbian groups, or for Christian hostels to refuse beds to same-sex couples.

Lord Mackay said: "For people of religious faith who believe that the practice of homosexuality is wrong, these proposals seem to me to carry a serious threat to their freedom in their voluntary and charitable work and in relation to earning their livelihood in a number of occupations."

Bishop Nazir-Ali said several of the main faiths in Britain would have "serious difficulty" with the regulations. "They will certainly affect a great deal of charitable work done by the churches and others. It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers."

Rupert Kaye, the chief executive of the Association of Christian Teachers, said: "Diverse individuals and organisations should be free to agree to disagree. They should not be required by law to show 'mutual respect' to individuals or organisations whose beliefs or lifestyle are anathema."

Senior Muslims were also critical. Dr Majid Katme, the spokesman for the Islamic Medical Association, argued that the proposals demonstrated that the Government was prepared to discriminate against faith communities in order to promote "equality".

"The right to hold deep faith convictions that affect the way people think and behave in every aspect of life is sacrificed in these regulations," he said.

The proposals were broadly welcomed by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, which said it strongly agreed with the Government's aim to respect "the dignity and worth of each person".

It said Christian groups that were calling for wholesale exemptions were attempting to sabotage the central purpose of the proposals.