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Wednesday, 10 January 2007

SOR - the problem

Under the Equality Act (2006), the Government gave itself the power to make regulations affecting the provision of goods and services. These regulations take the form of the "Sexual Orientation Regulations" (SOR). They have already been pushed through in Northern Ireland and it is intended that they should come into force in England next April. (Here is the text of The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.

The SORs make it illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation when offering "goods, facilities or services".

There is a good summary at the website of Christian Concern for our Nation. The gay lobbyng group Stonewall, has been one of the leading groups campaigning for this legislation. As they say:
Stonewall lobbied extremely hard for these important protections and many individuals and organisations were involved in securing this massive step forward. The government bowed to pressure in the House of Lords and accepted Stonewall's amendments to the Equality Bill. Consequently, it will become illegal to discriminate against lesbians and gay men in the provision of goods and services - from NHS care through to hotels and restaurants.
A Christian person operating a bed and breakfast will break the law if they refuse to allow a gay couple to share a bed in their house. If a Church hires out its hall to other groups, it will not be lawful to refuse a gay group who wish to hire the hall. Schools would also be required to remove any "bias" in favour of heterosexuality and thus would fall foul of the law by assuming or teaching that marriage or heterosexual relationships are more normal than homosexual relationships.

In a worrying development, the Northern Ireland Regulations have actually widened the scope of the Regulations. As the Christian Concern for our Nation site points out on its page about concerning development in Northern Ireland:
The NI consultation expressly stated that no law on harassment would be brought in, and yet only 6 weeks later, the published final Regulations do make it illegal to harass someone on the basis of their sexual orientation. This is extremely concerning because the definition of harassment relies largely on the perception of the person who claims they were harassed: all they need do is allege that someone has ‘violated their dignity’ or that someone created a ‘hostile or insulting environment’ for them, and they can take legal action.
Indeed, related to schools, current Government Guidance Stand up for us. Challenging homophobia in Schools, tells schools that as part of their action to prevent homophobia, they should avoid "heterosexism" a new word which the Department helpfully defines for us:
HETEROSEXISM describes the presumption that everyone is heterosexual. It refers to a culture in which individuals, families and their lifestyles are categorised according to a heterosexual model. Examples include the assumption that a male pupil will have, or be looking for, a girlfriend; or that a female parent, when talking about her partner, is referring to a male. Such a culture can make LGB pupils and staff feel marginalised, and not valued or understood within the school community.
In another part of the document, the advice is given:
"Do not use generic language that assumes parents and staff always have opposite sex partners"
Currently, this has the status of "Guidance" from the DfES. If the SORs make "harrassment" illegal, a claim could be made against a Catholic school for assuming that the normal model of family is one with a married mother and father, let alone for teaching it to be God's will.

The basic problem with the legislation is that there are two conflicting claims to rights. The SORs give precedence to the claim of homosexuals to live and work in an environment where nobody is allowed to make the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm. Many Christians claim the right to live according to traditional Christian teaching which sees marriage as a created reality, the family as the fundamental unit of society, and homosexual acts as gravely sinful.

Stonewall give a helpful example of what they mean by harrassment. The "canteen culture" assumption that people all agree with a comment (about homosexuality) would make for a hostile environment for a gay person.

What seems to have escaped the notice of the Government and equality campaigners is that Christians have suffered from exactly this kind of "harrassment" for years. Comments about the Church, the Pope, Catholic teaching, bible-bashers, and indeed "homophobia" can make Christians uncomfortable at work. People routinely pool their ignorance derived from The Da Vinci Code, their blasphemy based on the Life of Brian, their prejudice taken from last nights edition of a soap opera. We don't actually claim the right not to be harrassed in this way: simply a level playing-field in which we are allowed to live what we believe and to speak about it.

This new legislation presents an extremely serious danger. We are on the threshold of becoming the first western "democracy" to make it illegal to live and proclaim the Christian faith.
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