Pressure on Ruth Kelly over gay rights law
The defeat of a motion in the House of Lords to rescind the Sexual Orientation Regulations in Northern Ireland has been welcomed by gay activists.
The debate has also added to the pressure on Ruth Kelly to ensure that the same regulations are introduced to England and Wales.
The new rules outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services.
The SOR were meant to come into force in England and Wales on January 1st, but Communities Secretary Kelly delayed them.
The thousands of responses that the Department for Communities and Local Government received during the consultation process was the reason given for the delay.
Many gay rights activists feared that Kelly was attempting to stall the regulations so that she could amend them to reflect the concerns of religious groups.
“This is not about forcing religious organisations to comply to any way of thinking, rather it establishes that the protections that those very organisations have in law are granted to the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities too,” commented Phelim Mac Cafferty, a gay Green Party activist in Brighton.
“The Green Party condemns any moves to water down the goods, facilities and services regulations. We call on the Government to now stand up to the bigots and make these regulations law.”
If the exemptions for religious groups do make their way into the Sexual Orientation Regulations for England and Wales, they could allow, for example, faith schools to expel lesbian, gay or bisexual pupils or faith-based homeless charities to forbid access to LGB homeless people.
The debate in the House of Lords has shown many of the Christian and Muslim objections to the regulations to be false.
Labour and Liberal Democrat peers voted for equality, and despite the hostile sentiments expressed by some Tory peers, the party itself supports the SOR.
This means that Ms Kelly will face no almost opposition to the regulations for England and Wales when she brings them before the House of Commons.
All the major parties support their introduction.
In fact, the only voices of opposition to the Sexual Orientation Regulations are from the churches and other faith communities.
The SOR for Northern Ireland contain a clause that provides an exemption from the rules on the grounds of religious doctrine, meaning that a church still has the right to decide who can be a member, for example.
It is anticipated that the England and Wales regulations will have a similar opt out.
Humanist gay and lesbians are concerned at the influence the churches appear to have over the Communities Secretary and what effect that influence might have on the delayed regulations.
“The religious pressure on the Culture Secretary, Ruth Kelly, will be relentless to provide more and more opt-outs for religion,” George Broadhead, secretary of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, told PinkNews.co.uk
“We certainly hope that this result in the House of Lords will stiffen the Government’s resolve not to weaken the regulations even further with concessions to religion that will render them meaningless.
“The Church of England and the Catholics have both opposed the regulations.
“It is these powerful institutions that will be exerting pressure on Ruth Kelly – but in the light of the big majority [in favour of gay rights] in the Lords, we hope that she will resist any further exemptions.”
It seems increasingly unlikely that Ruth Kelly will be able to make changes to the regulations, even if she wanted to.
Her decision to delay them caused an split in Cabinet, with Education Secretary Alan Johnson reportedly angry that devout Roman Catholic Kelly appeared to be bowing to pressure from the churches.
Stonewall, the UK’s leading gay rights organisation, was engaged in intense lobbying of peers over the last month to ensure that the motion to rescind the SOR in Northern Ireland was defeated.
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Their chief executive, Ben Summerskill, spoke exclusively to PinkNews.co.uk about the next step – ensuring the regulations make it into law in the rest of the UK without being tampered with.
“We are continuing to pressure ministers to introduce robust protections for England and Wales, as exist in Northern Ireland,” he revealed.
“We have received a firm undertaking that the regulations will be prepared in time for introduction in April, in response to our repeated reminders to ministers of how urgently needed these regulations are.”
A survey released today found that 5% of gay men and 4% of lesbian faced discrimination when trying to access goods and services in the last year.
That means that hundreds or perhaps thousands of LGB people are subject to discrimination on a daily basis.
With less than three months to go until the Sexual Orientation Regulations are due to become law in England and Wales, it seems that the last real chance to change them was voted out by the House of Lords this week.