Outcry from 'religious lobby' prompts Government to shelve controversial legislation for at least six months
BY SIMON CALDWELL
SWEEPING new gay rights laws have been all but abandoned because of vigorous pmtests from the churches and other opponents.
Whitehall officials have been shocked by the scale and depth of opposition to the legislation, which was meant to penalise organisations which refuse to offer their services to homosexuals.
The decision to delay the laws has led to speculation that Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, who is seen as a reluctant supporter of gay rights, may ditch them entirely.
She has postponed the date the Sexual Orientation (Provision of Goods and Services) Regulations go before Parliament by at least six months.
The measures were supposed to be decided by a single vote in each of the Houses of Parliament by the end of October.
But the earliest they will reach Parliament is April 2007 after the Government was deluged by thousands of hostile responses to its consultation document, "Getting Equal".
A leading critic of the rules. former Conservative Minister Ann Widdecombe, a Catholic, said the fact that the Government had delayed the regulations by so long meant it knew it had a problem with them. "It wouldn't surprise me if the regulations quietly disappeared," she said.
The measures were designed to make discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation illegal in the same way as race or sex. They aimed to protect gays and lesbians fiom being denied "goods, facilities and services" on the basis of their sexual preferences and were drawn up after homosexual couples complained of being refused hotel rooms.
However, the regulations were also applied to faith communities, prompting the Churches to demand wholesale exemptions.
The Church of England complained, for instance, that its ministers might be sued if they refused to bless same-sex unions.
The Catholic Church also denounced the proposals, saying its nine adoption and fostering agencies would be at risk of closure if the Government tried to make them place children in the care of gay couples.
The rules would also have forced Christian marriage preparation and guidance agencies to cater for same sex couples and would not allow parishes the right to refuse the use of their halls for gay wedding receptions.
Christian retreat houses, conference centres and hostels could be prosecuted it they refused bookings from gay and lesbian groups and editors of Christian newspapers' could find themselves in court for turning down advertisements at odds with Church teaching.
And in an apparent reversal of Section 28 — the law introduced by the last Tory Government to stop the promotion of homosexuality in schools — secondary schools in Britain would be compelled to place homosexual sexual acts on an equal footing to the conjugal love of married heterosexuals.
Much of the materials already approved or advocated for the classroom are sexually explicit, but the rules would have curtailed parents' right to object to them.
Other materials include "Gay History Month", in which children as young as seven were taught that Sir Isaac Newton and Florence Nightingale were homosexuals.
The Catholic bishops raised the possibility that an obligation to promote homosexuality in schools would bring them into conflict with the charitable trust deeds under which they must legally operate.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said that the decision to delay the legislation came last Tuesday after an unexpected 3,000 responses to the public consultation were received.
"Ministers need more time to look at the proposals and decide," she said, adding that there was a particular problem with the "religious lobby".
Miss Widdecombe, the Conservative MP for Maidstone, said she was "delighted" that the plans had been put back.
"It means that if nothing else they are taking seriously the representations and looking at them — but okay, I would have been more delighted if they dropped them altogether," she said.
"The reaction has been overwhelming. People are very, very perturbed by the way the legislation would affect their ordinary lives
and business. This. is going to affect your ability to live out your principles in your own life," she explained. "When people suddenly realised that is what it would do it caused serious worry."
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales had told the Government that they had "serious misgivings" about the regulations because they made no distinction between "homophobia" and a "conviction, based on religions belief and moral conscience, that homosexual practice is wrong".
"We do not believe they strike a reasonable balance between the right of people not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual conduct or lifestyle, and the right of religious organisations to be able to act in conformity with their religious beliefs and identity," the bishops said.
Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church ht Scotland, which had publicly condemned the proposals, said that the bishops had simply sought a "reasonable interpretation" of European law. ' "We thought this legislation would be excessively intrusive to make these regulations binding on everyone and would ironically bring about a very intolerant situation where someone's deeply held convictions could not only be ignored but legally quashed," he said.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, had also publicly opposed the proposals because he felt they would undermine people's rights to exercise their religious beliefs. The proposals were also criticised by senior Muslims.
Dr Majid Katrne, the spokesman for the Islamic Medical Association. argued that they showed that the Government was prepared to discriminate against faith communities to enforce its own definition of "equality".
Gay rights groups which lobbied hard for the regulations have accused faith gimps of trying to sabotage them.
The regulations were drawn up by the Department of Trade and Industry under powers included in the Equality Act 2006, which harmonised UK domestic law with European legislation but which did not, however, require equality in the provision of goods and services.
After the Prime Minister reshuffled his Cabinet in the spring the responsibility for the proposals was passed to Miss Kelly, a member of the personal prelature Opus Dei.
Miss Kelly, a mother of four, has been absent from every major vote on gay rights since Labour came to power and gay rights campaigners reacted with disbelief when it became apparent that her brief covered the proposed rules.
The Outcry prompted Nicky Campbell to later ask Ruth Kelly on Radio 5 Live: "Do you think homosexuality is a sin?".
Three times Miss Kelly refused to give him a direct answer, saying only that she "firmly believed in equality".