Religious leaders, academics and legal advisors have joined together to urge the government to protect freedom of conscience in the upcoming Sexual Orientation Regulations in the new Equality Act.
The law, due next April, protects gays and lesbians from discrimination in the provision of goods and services, but critics have warned that the proposals infringe on religious beliefs.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, representatives of the Christian Lawyers’ Fellowship, UK Asian Christians and other senior church ministers wrote, “The current proposals for the regulations would infringe the right of Christians and Jews to act in accordance with the doctrinal teaching of their respective faiths, which says that the practice of sex outside heterosexual marriage is wrong.”
At a fringe meeting of the Labour Party conference last month, Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay charity Stonewall, said that any exceptions to the law should be minimal, he said: “You don’t get Jewish people told that anti-Semites have a problem with laws to protect them.”
His statements were supported by Katie Hanson, co-chair of the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights, she called the law the “final bit” needed from Labour to ensure equality for the gay community.
Recognising that the government has to find a balance between religious belief and gay rights, she said: “There are no exemptions for racists in race relations laws so there shouldn’t be for religions,” she said.
Also addressing the meeting was Meg Munn, Junior Women and Equality in the Women and Equality Unit which is overseeing the implementation of the law, she hinted that that the gay community would not be disappointed with the new Equality Act.
This is unlikely to impress opponents of the law who expressed hope in their letter that the regulations would not force anyone to “promote, facilitate, encourage or assist” gay values.