Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly has once again come under criticism regarding her view on gay rights after it has emerged that exemptions may be allowed for Catholic groups in the upcoming Equality Act.
The new law, which has now been delayed until April, aims to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services for the LGBT community, but protests from Christian groups appear to have led to a delay.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph last week, 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.”
Disputes over the law have led to what The Observer describes as a battle between the government’s ‘Catholic tendency,’ with Prime Minister Tony Blair known to be concerned about offending faith schools and religious based adoption agencies.
While Ms Kelly has previously been criticised for her membership of Catholic group Opus Dei who proscribe using Christian values in daily and work life.
The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) has begun to doubt whether Ms Kelly can adequately protect gay rights and has called for her resignation, GALHA’s Secretary, George Broadhead, said: “There was a strong suspicion when Ruth Kelly was given this job of looking after the interests of the various communities that the present Government has created, that she would not be even-handed as far as LGBT people were concerned.
“We fear that Ms Kelly is going to grant large-scale opt-outs for religious groups from these new regulations. The pressure for these opt-outs has come from – among others – the Catholic Church which has been agitating more and more against LGBT rights. LGBT people are getting a raw deal from this woman who should never have been given this sensitive post in the first place considering her membership of Opus Dei.”
Mr Broadhead accused her of putting her commitment to Opus Dei first.
Education Secretary Alan Johnson has also joined the criticism, the The Observer reports that he wrote to Ms Kelly a few weeks ago telling her the rights should not be watered down.
It was Mr Johnson who announced the consultation on the new law last March as Trade and Industry Secretary before a cabinet reshuffle in May.
The Department of Communities and Local Government which is in charge of implementation of the bill along with the Women and Equality Unit, say the delay is due to the large number of responses to the consultation.
Last month, the Christian Peoples Alliance (CPA) called on the Government to include a ‘conscience clause’ in the new Sexual Orientation Regulations, the party argued that the regulations will force them to break the law if they are required to provide services, such as adoption or letting out rooms, or halls to those whose practices run contrary to their beliefs.
Speaking at a fringe meeting of the Labour Party Conference earlier this month, Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay charity Stonewall said any exceptions to the law should be minimal, “You don’t get Jewish people told that anti-Semites have a problem with laws to protect them.”
Ms Kelly has repeatedly refused to give a clear answer on her views of homosexuality, she dodged the issue when confronted recently on BBC Radio5 Livein reaction to an investigation by PinkNews.co.uk which found she had never voted for gay rights and is a member of an anti gay Christian group.
The presenter, Nicky Campbell asked her three times if she viewed homosexual acts as sin, a belief held by the Opus Dei group which she is a member of, Ms Kelly replied, “I don’t think its right for politicians to start making moral judgments about people, it’s the last thing I want to do.
“The questions is what are my political views and as a politician I think everyone should be free of discrimination.
“Is it possible to be a Catholic and hold a portfolio in government, the answer is emphatically yes. I am responsible for holding to the collective cabinet view on these matters but I firmly believe in equality and that everyone should be free of discrimination and I will fight to the end to make sure that’s the case.”
On 22nd June 1998, Ruth Kelly, 38, was absent from the Crime and Disorder Bill to reduce the age of consent, as she was on the 1st March 1999 and the 10th February when the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill sought to achieve the same goal (the first having been rejected by the Lords).
On the 24th October 2001, she was absent from the voting on the Relationships (Civil Registration) motion that was the catalyst for introducing the Civil Partnerships bill in Parliament.
On the 29th October 2001, she was absent from the third reading of the Adoption and Children Bill (Programme), to allow gay couples to adopt, as she was on further votes on the same subject on 16th May 2002, 20th May 2002 and the 4th November 2002. On the 10th March 2003, she was absent from the vote to repeal section 28 which banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality as a valid lifestyle.
On the 12th October 2004, she was absent from the vote on the Civil Partnerships Bill, as she was on the 9th November 2004.
The mother of four defended her gay rights voting record saying, “Everybody is entitled to express their views in free votes on matters of conscience and I’ve always made clear that as a member of parliament I’ve cast my vote according to conscience but I’m also a member of the government its my duty to see through equality and I’m passionate to see there is no discrimination.”