New regulations that outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation came into force in Northern Ireland yesterday.
The province is the first part of the UK to introduce new protections for the LGBT community.
The measures were controversial, with churches on both sides of the religious divide arguing that the regulations will discriminate against people with religious views.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland welcomed the new rules.
“People have already brought to our attention instances where they have been turned away from hotels, bars and clubs, or denied access to transport, simply because of their sexual orientation,” said Bob Collins, the chief commissioner.
“From January 1 experiences like these may well be covered by the new regulations and the commission can advise and assist people who find themselves in such situations.”
The regulations have been controversial on both sides of the Irish Sea. As the Northern Ireland Assembly is still suspended, the Secretary of State, Peter Hain, pushed ahead with the proposals despite opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party, who are the largest political group in the province.
Opposition to protection from discrimination for gays and lesbians has been led by DUP MP Peter Donaldson.
Mr Donaldson secured a debate last month in the so-called ‘shadow’ assembly, which was convened to try to push forward the peace process in Northern Ireland.
His motion to delay the introduction of the Sexual Orientation Regulations ended in a tied vote.
“I believe the Government should have taken note of that opposition and withdrawn the regulations to allow the Assembly the opportunity to discuss and debate these issues in more detail and to amend the regulations so as to protect the rights of Christians,” said Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley.
“There is an ongoing judicial review being taken by a number of Christian groups and we will await the outcome of that.
“I believe the Government is wrong and this will create major problems for Christians who may face charges of discrimination simply because they are following their consciences and deeply held religious beliefs.”
Both the main Nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, supported their introduction.
The regulations have been delayed in England and Wales by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, causing outrage in the gay community. Ms Kelly said she had received thousands of objections to the new rules.
In October 2006 there was a row in Cabinet over the delay, with Education Secretary Alan Johnson insisting the regulations should come into force without delay.
The regulations are due to come into force in England and Wales in April.