Don’t it just beggar belief.

If today’s Indy is correct then it seems the cat may be out of the carefully concealed bag in the matter of Ruth Kelly’s real intentions for the implementation of the new Sexual Orientation Regulations:

A row has broken out in the Cabinet over how far the Government should go in outlawing discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has pushed through regulations in the province that will be tougher than the Government plans for England, Wales and Scotland. He has defied a call by Ruth Kelly, the Cabinet minister responsible for equality, to hold fire until a common approach has been agreed.

Way to go, Peter. Nice to see a few principles resurfacing every now and again. But wait…

Allies of Ms Kelly have accused Mr Hain of pandering to Labour activists to enhance his prospects in the election for the party’s deputy leader next year. His liberal approach may derail sensitive negotiations between the Government and church leaders, who are urging ministers not to put the rights of gays above the rights of Christians. But gay rights campaigners are urging Ms Kelly to extend the Northern Ireland rules to the rest of the UK.

Mmm. So Hain’s allegedly pandering to Labour activists, while Kelly’s pandering to a bunch of religious bigots.

I wonder whose side should I take? Coo, that’s a toughy.

Am I going to support Hain’s run for deputy leader, just because he’s done the right thing here? Probably not, there are other factors to consider, but I welcome and applaud his stand on this issue.

Would I vote for Ruth Kelly in any circumstances? Only if we were electing a cess-pit cleaner on a lifetime tenure.

Let me absolutely clear in my views here. There should be no compromise on equality.

In fact I’d, personally, go further that the government has done and bring forward a consolidation bill to replace all existing equality legislation and regulations with a single bill to cover all forms of irrational and unlawful discrimination.

There are two main problems with the current piecemeal system of individual legislation/regulations.

First, as this specific issue illustrates, it encourages and emboldens some groups to seek (and obtain) exemptions from the law to cover their own peculiar and unacceptable prejudices, and that I object to most strongly. It is no more acceptable for Christians to be afforded the privilege of having a right to discriminate against homosexuals enshrined in law that it would be for our laws covering race equality to incorporate exemptions covering the British National Party and other racists on the far-right.

Second, the peacemeal structure of current laws creates entirely the wrong impression and permits these laws to be too easily misrepresented by those seeking to preserve the privilege of their own prejudice. Equality laws are for everyone and, for the most part, apply equally to everyone, not just to specific groups in society. And yet by having individual laws to cover discrimination against particular groups, the false impression is created is that those laws are only for those specific groups.

It;s time to move both the law, and the vast bulk of public discourse, on from talk of women’s right. minority rights, gay rights, religious rights, etc. to a framework based on a simple principle. Equality.

But for the odd anomaly that would need to be ironed out, there is very little in our current patchwork of equality legislation that could not, and should not, be applied generically across the whole sphere of equality law. The core rights, the right to equal treatment in society and before the law and the right not be discriminated against, abused or harrassed on irrational grounds are the same irrespective of your gender, your ethnic background, your sexuality or whether you have a disability.etc. and there are few instances in which one can rationally justify additional provisions in law for any specific group, most of which relate to the area of disability, which presents its own unqiue challenges and considerations.

The introduction of a bill consolidating the entire canon of current equality law into a single Act of Parliament would send out a very clear and uimportant message, that equality is for all of us and help put an end to the ‘them and us’ culture that too often dominates the public discourse on equality. That’s a message and an approach I would both welcome and wholeheartedly support.

Kelly is reported to be:

…sympathetic to pleas by the Anglican and Catholic churches, who claim that tough anti-discrimination laws could force their adoption agencies, youth and breakfast clubs to close, their bookshops could be sued if they refuse to stock gay literature and hotel owners with strong religious beliefs could be fined if they do not allow gay couples to share a room.

Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if those Christians who opposed these regulations want to take their ball home then fuck ’em, let them do it. They’re entirely free to withdraw their services.

But then we’re also entirely free to withdraw any and all state funding from religious groups and organisations that refuse to work to the same standards of behaviour that apply to everyone else. If I thought that I wouldn’t get the stock reply ‘this information is not held centrally and would be too expensive to compile’, I might be inclned to put in a few FOIA requests to find out just exactly how much public money gets sucked into the gaping maw of ‘faith’ organisations, most of it on the premise that these groups are providing services that are of a non-religious character and are not, therefore, primarily for the purpose of promoting their religious views.

I look at it this way. If you run a youth club and its open to all young people in your area, then your purpose is to provide a much-needed and valuable service to youung people. If, however, you attempt to exclude young people from your club because their relgious beliefs (or lack thereof) do not coincide with your own or something as fundamental to their identity as their sexuality ‘offends’ against you religious sensibilities, then your purpose for running the club is primarily religious – you are using as a vehicle to bring young people into a closed environment in which you can seek to indoctrinate them in your particular beliefs.

And if that’s your purpose, then you can kindly get your snout out of the public-sector funding trough.

The article also refers to the possibility of a legal challenge to the new regulations by the Christain Institute, whose press release on the subject includes all the usual overheated claims of imminent doom, including the absurd claim by its Director, Colin Hart, that:

Peter Hain talks about equality. But he should read his own Regulations which elevate gay rights above all other rights for religious people, and rights on the grounds of age, sex and disability. It is a preferential status which will drive a coach and horses through religious liberty.

Hart, who one would presume is not a lawyer, is talking absolute rubbish, of course. These regulations do no such thing. All they do is put the gay community on an equal footing with everyone else.

So far as one can tell, Hart’s contention here is based on an assertion that the regulations are drafted ‘too loosely’ (pdf) in their wording, specifically in regards to the matter of harrassment:

Of particular concern is the new loosely worded harassment law, Regulation 3(3):

(3) A person (“A”) subjects another person (“B”) to harassment in any circumstances relevant for the purposes of any provision referred to in these Regulations where, on the ground of sexual orientation, A engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of —

(a) violating B’s dignity; or(b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B

Therefore, at its lowest,‘harassment’ can constitute an ‘offensive environment’ for a homosexual. Furthermore, under Regulation 52 the burden of proof is reversed so that the person accused of harassment will have to prove their innocence.

Sorry Colin, but here’s Regulation 5 of the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003:

5. – (1) For the purposes of these Regulations, a person (“A”) subjects another person (“B”) to harassment where, on grounds of religion or belief, A engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of –

(a) violating B’s dignity; or

(b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

And here’s the CRE explaining the definition of harassment in the Race Relations Act 1976.

The Race Regulations make harassment on grounds of race or ethnic or national origin a separate unlawful act. This will occur when a person, A, subjects another person, B, to unwanted conduct on grounds of race or ethnic or national origin that has the purpose or effect of:

* violating B’s dignity; or

* creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

Is that enough, Colin, or should I take the time to dig out the relevant passages from regulations covering gender, disability and age to to demonstrate clearly, fully and unequivocally that your assertion is entirely false and without substance.

The problem here is not the wording of the law, that wording has been in use for at least thirty years, building up a sustantial body of case law to define precisely what is meant by violating someone’s dignity or ‘creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’; case law that will be applied by the courts, if and when any cases are brought under these new regulations
The problem is your attitude to and beliefs about homosexuality.

Oh, and I should mention that the burden of proof has been reversed, certainly in the areas of race and gender, since 2002/3 and comes into effect only after the plaintiff has shown the actions about which they’ve complained are discriminatory or constitute harrassment, and was reversed to limit the scope of the ‘I’ll just say that I didn’t really mean it and you can’t prove that’ defence.

As usual, the Christian Institute’s ‘briefing’ contains all the usual specious and highly tendentious ‘examples’ of how the law could be used to ‘harass’ Christians:

An aggrieved pupil can sue a teacher who says in a lesson, or an assembly, that sex is only for marriage.

Rubbish. Not only is the teacher expressing an opinion but the statement is so generic as to apply equally to both homosexuals and heterosexuals (umarried people do fuck, you do realise?).

A homosexual student could argue that a university has created an ‘offensive environment’ by permitting the ‘homophobic’ CU to advertise its meetings on campus.

Rubbish. Such a case would only be actionable if the content of the advertisement were deemed to be homophobic.

Using the discrimination provisions in Regulation 9, a pro-homosexual parent could launch a legal action against a school over its English lessons. It could be argued that texts such as Romeo & Juliet with a heterosexual love theme are used but not novels about homosexual relationships. Such a court case could force schools to use pro-homosexual books. This has already happened in North America.

This is not America, and the legal basis of any challenge against censorship in American schools is fundamentally different to anything that might be brought in the UK, as such cases would rest on the US First Amendment and on its provisions for the separation of church and state.

Oh, and I’d pick something other than Romeo and Juliet to illustrate you point here – Juliet Capulet is only thirteen years old in the play.

A homosexual could argue that the Bible is a ‘homophobic book’ and that a hospital creates an ‘offensive environment’ by having Bibles by the beds.

Or they could simply ask for the book to be removed by a nurse, assuming that the homosexual in question is not, themselves, a Christian, who might well appreciate finding a Bible at their bedside.

The prison authorities could ban an evangelical prison ministry, which believes that sex is only for marriage, after receiving threats of legal action from a homosexual prisoner who alleges he has been ‘harassed’ by the ministry.

The Christian owner of a block of flats puts up a poster inside the entrance advertising the services of his church, whose minister is a well-known opponent of homosexuality. A homosexual who rents a flat passes the notice board every day and alleges harassment.

Again, whether or not the tenant is aware of the minister’s views on homosexuality is largely immaterial – such a case would, if brought, would depend whether the content of the poster could be deemed homophobic or whether the owner put up the poster, knowing full well that one of their tenants is gay, specifically for the purpose of causing harassment.

In the latter case, if the owner get sued and loses the case then they will be getting only what they deserve.

A hotel firm is sued by a homosexual for providing Bibles in every room on the grounds that this creates an ‘offensive environment’.

As in the case of the hospital given above, this is complete and utter rubbish

A Christian magazine which refuses to take advertising from a ‘gay Christian’ group loses a legal action brought by the group and is forced to close down because of legal costs.

Notice that the words gay Christian are written in quotation marks, exposing the Insitute’s prejudical belief that the two words are entirely incompatible. If such a case is brought then it will be dealt with by the courts on its merits, and if the magazine loses, that’s its problem.

Two men sue a wedding photographer who refuses to photograph their civil partnership ceremony.

Should this arise then in vast majority of cases the couple will simply find a photographer who will attend their ceremony, and if the photgrapher does get sued then tough.

In both the last two examples, the refusal to provide a service would already be unlawful if carried out on grounds of gender, race or disability.

Religious organisations are in theory partially exempted from the regulations for certain purposes (Regulation 16), so that, for example, a church can refuse to rent out its hall to homosexual activists. However, the Church could still be sued for harassment. Regulation 16(8) prevents the exception applying where an organisation has entered into a contract with the state to provide a particular service. This means that religious bodies providing a service on behalf of the state must comply with the new laws.

This passage reveals that, in fact, religious groups have already wrung a number of concessions out of the government, specifically the right:

(a) to restrict membership of the organisation;

(b) to restrict participation in activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices;

(c) to restrict the provision of goods, facilities and services in the course of activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices; or

(d) to restrict the use or disposal of premises owned or controlled by the organisation,

Provided that such actions as, in the wording of the regulations, either ‘necessary to comply with the doctrine of the organisation’ or ‘to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religions followers’.

So churches in Northern Ireland (and one would expect the rest of the UK whent h regulations come in) will be permitted to refuse to hire out their church hall to a gay couple for a reception after a civil partnership ceremony, or refuse a gay, lesbian or bisexual youth access to their youth club or even refuse to serve a homosexuals in their church bookshop or tea room, after all, the only exceptions being those where the church receives state funding for the activity or service in question (and quite right to) or where they are disposing of premised outright (i.e. selling them).

What they’re sweating on here is, in fact, that these regulations do afford them an exemption against a claim of harrassment when taking such an action, which is quite right. Even if they are allowed to refuse to serve a gay couple a cup of tea, that does not mean that they are entitled to harrass that couple in the course of making such a refusal.

Still, they go on to complain that:

A Christian old people’s home receiving state funding and which refused to provide a double room to two men in a civil partnership would be held to be unlawfully discriminating. The costs of losing a legal case could force the home to close.

And I think I’ve already made my views plain on this particular score.

But hang on a second, doesn’t this rather contradict the blanket claim that Church-run services like adoption agencies, youth clubs, breakfast clubs will have to close if these regulations do go through?

Why, yes it does, because on these regulations don’t appear to prevent churches from discriminating against the gay community, so long as services are provided directly under the auspices of the church and not hived-off to a separate church-controlled voluntary organisation, but they do prevent churches from receiving state funding for those activities, if they discriminate against homosexuals in the provision.
So when it comes to churches, this isn’t really about the right to hold certain religiously founded prejudices at all, but about the right to expect taxpayers to subsidise them while they exercise those prejudices.

And, that, my little droogies, is what’s called hypocrisy.

5 thoughts on “Don’t it just beggar belief.

  1. Pingback: Ministry of Truth
  2. Excellent post.

    As you bring out very well, the exemptions given to faith groups (a term that goes without definition) are far too wide, covering many dealings with members of the public, or sections of the public, as well as members or aspirant members, some of whom will be among the most vulnerable people in society.

    This is much more extensive then the GB consultation envisaged in the spring. It appears that Ruth Kelly envisages still larger concessions.

  3. Yes, but such a consolidated Act would have to be carefully drafted, so that private discrimination is allowed in its proper place – people should be able to have private clubs that wear their exclusive character on their face if they like.

  4. What a great post! It highlighted the absolutely preposterously weak and irrational lines of argument used by the Christian groups. Some of the comments you quote in your piece are so laughably ridiculous that they deserve derision- banning the advertising of Christian Group meetings – have they even read the proposed legislation? Religious groups often expect to be made exempt from the laws and conventions of this country. If, as a gay man, I decided to buy Tesco and chose to refuse people entry to my stores on the grounds of their religion (perhaps by making them sign a declaration that they weren’t Christian) these people would be outraged. I do find some Christian views offensive in the same way that they find homosexuality offensive, but I would NEVER seek to treat a Chritian different in any way. That is the main difference. Religious groups, often contrary to their core ethos, want to reserve the right to discriminate. If the gay community were given legal right to discriminate against Christians they would be up in amrs. Anyway, keep up the good work. You do a great job of pointing out the hypocricy and I agree that consolidated act is the only ideal way of protecting indiduals right equally. Having laws specifically designed to protect gay rights (although I fear it may be the only workable way) can lead to anti-gay groups using it as evidence of unequal treatment although such a claim is utterly false. The Christians you quote would have us believe we are living in a pro-gay, anti-Christian utopia. They couldn’t be further from the truth.

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