A written answer from the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Church of England’s General Synod has revealed that new laws to protect LGB people from discrimination may be under threat.
Dr Rowan Williams said that the Sexual Orientation Regulations for Great Britain will differ from those already in force in Northern Ireland.
Although clearly the SORs will differ, because Prime Minister Tony Blair has granted Roman Catholic-run adoption agencies in Britain a transition period to comply with the law, Dr Williams’ answer implies that there will be more exemptions for faith-based service providers.
“The regulations for Great Britain have yet to be published and will in some respects be different from those already approved by Parliament for Northern Ireland,” he wrote.
“It remains to be seen therefore, precisely what the impact will be on churches and religious organisations generally.”
Dr Williams also revealed that the Church of England have received assurances from the government:
“Last June the Archbishops Council submitted a carefully argued response to the Government’s consultation paper on the proposed regulations,” Dr Williams wrote.
“The Government had already accepted the principle that some special provisions were needed to safeguard the manifesting of religious convictions.
“The issue at stake was how widely those provisions should be drafted to reflect a proper balancing of conflicting rights. There has also been a series of exchanges with Government ministers and advisers.”
Fr Martin Reynolds, an Anglican vicar and spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said he was concerned about how wide-ranging any changes to the Sexual Orientation Regulations could be.
“I am horrified that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been privately informed that these regulations are in some respect different from those we have welcomed for Northern Ireland.
“We can only think that this does not augur well for our community.”
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The regulations are supposed to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services.
While the Northern Ireland regulations do allow faith communities to decide on how their premises can be used in a non-commercial way, any commercial faith-based company or organisation must comply with the law.
In Britain, and especially in Scotland, both openly and covertly many services are delivered by churches and other faith groups.
Dr Williams alluded to the “rights” of such providers of goods and services to continue to discriminate against gay, bisexual and lesbian people in his answer.
“There are deeper issues here about the rights, liberties and dignities of independent bodies in relation to the State. To use the law to make it impossible, after a transitional period, for a religious organisation to carry on doing work that is manifestly for the common good is a new and troubling development,” he wrote.
“This only echoes the call for a whole national debate on the role of faith communities in the delivery of social services,” commented Fr Reynolds.
“Especially if they define their ethos in terms of its ability to discriminate against gay people. As a Christian I am ashamed and as a consumer I am appalled.”
The Sexual Orientation Regulations have not yet been published, despite the fact that the government has repeatedly reassured the gay community that they will be law by April.
Parliament goes on holidays on the 26th March and the regulations will have to be voted through both Houses of Parliament.