Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Northern Ireland Sexual Orientation regulations

In spite of attempts by various Christian organisations to prevent it, the NI regs covering discrimination in goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation will come into force on the 1st January 2007.

Nice to start the year on a high.

An application had been made to the High Court to delay the regulations until the same time as the GB regs, but had been declined. The High Court will however have a two day hearing on 1st and 2nd March.

Also the regs may be voted on in Parliament by way of seeking an annullment ( a debate is due on the 9th in the House fo Lords).

From what I can tell the 'Christian' case against the NI regs is that the consultation was too short and that they will curtail religious freedom in contravention of the Human Rights Act.

The first ground has little to commend it.

There is of course an expectation of a consultation, which usually lasts 3 months. A consultation has in fact taken place, which was well advertised on the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM for short....) website and took as long as scheduled to take (around two months). The regs were due to enter into force in November, which would have been just after the GB regs, though these were subsequently delayed until April 2007, because of a) the number of GB responses received and b) there are only two implementation dates in GB legislation.

The NI regs therefore have been, it would appear, delayed, though not by as much as the GB regs.

Similarly the Government has published its summary and response to the consultation at about the same time as publishing the regulations.

The consultation and summary/response are prominently available on the OFMDFM website dedicated to sexual orientation here - they make for interesting reading.

If the publication of the NI consultation document was the first that any one had heard of the proposals for these regulations there might be some grounds to query however - the Equality Act with the provision for the regs was given Royal Assent in February 2006 and the GB consultation document was published on the 13th March, covering the same issues, and lasting 3 months, as well as the fact that issues relating to goods and services and sexual orientation have already been consulted on in Northern Ireland in preparation for the Northern Ireland Single Equality Bill (reporting on 22nd March 2005). So the issues have been well aired over quite some time.

The argument about curtailment of religious freedom comes in two flavours, one of which has a little more merit (in my view).

The one is that Christians may want to discriminate against someone, not out of 'prejudice' (as in for example in a racist act) but simply because of biblical teachings, which to be a true Chrsitian you need to follow all of the time.

Apart from being inherently ridiculous (insisting on the freedom to discriminate as a core part of Christian discipleship is a strange way of advertising the principle of 'love your neighbour as yourself' and basic ideas about justice, equity and fairness) if granted this would mean that all discrimination is allowed if you say to the Court "It's not prejudice, it's based on the Bible and my profound religious belief". Any regulations would be unenforcable.

This defence would be available to anyone, anywhere and is effectively a licence for anyone (church going or not) to discrimate with impunity. Furthermore has anyone met a bigot who proclaimed themselves such? They usually start with "I'm not a racist but......" "Some of my best friends are ......".

Claims for a more restricted exemption for religious businesses are equally problematic as anyone who wanted to discriminate would just put a 'fish' symbol and a picture of Jesus in the vestibule and away you go.

A more credible argument is that gay rights groups will use the new law to vex Christians by taking out spurious cases of harassment.

Potential examples have been standing in close proximity to a Bible might be construed as harassment or some one may see a book or poster on marriage (obviously these poeple have never either experienced harassment or taken a case before an employment tribunal) and feel harassed.

Well it's good to see that Christians are able to recognise that LGBT people often do feel harassed by their antics. But this is, of course, most unlikely to occur and to delay the equality law on the grounds of something that is highly improbable, though theoretically possible would clearly be inappropriate.

The examples given clearly don't amount to harassment. Yes, you could take spurious cases but costs would be awarded against you so it would be quite expensive.

It is worth remembering that the Human Rights Act gives protection for religious freedom and the freedom of expression and that 'Convention rights' can be relied on in any proceddings.

The High Court case will actually be of some help here in defining (hopefully) in advance the kind of cases that are likely to constitute harassment and what the provisions for human rights may be.

This last point is a bit thorny and the High Court will need a lot of skill to get it right, but the High Court ruling will hopefully calm the more fevered anticipations of folk of faith.

For excellent coverage of the regulations see the Thinking Anglicans weblog with some interesting insights into the mind of the religious fearful.

For a more frightening insight see any number of Christian webistes - Christian Institute, Anglican Mainstream, CARE and the Lawyer's Christian Fellowship.

The Evangelical Alliance has struck a much more reasonable tone in its response.

Also well worth a read are the proceedings of the Northern Ireland Transitional Assembly debating the regulations (the motion to call for the regs to be withdrawn was lost in a tied vote).

Finally (last but not least) the LCF page details a report of a meeting with civil servants to try to assuage the fears of Christian groups. It makes interesting reading, to say the least, most notoably that the Government do not intend to introduce protection on the ground of harassment in the GB regs, which is a disappointment. They also indicated they had no intention of introducing a 'conscience clause', though had they done so there wouldn't have been much of a point to the regulations in any case. They also said that no final decisions have been made on the content of the regs.

2 comments:

  1. Richard Jones4:19 pm

    Some very interesting links.

    Congratulations on starting your blog so strongly.

    The Northern Ireland Regulations seem to me to have very broad exemptions for faith groups (a lot depends on the construction of r.16(8), I suppose), broad enough to enable them to discriminate not only against members and prospective members (with whatever impact upon their Article 9 rights), and others interested in activities like Bible study, but upon prospective attenders of church fetes and, much the most seriously, people looking to support from faith group activities not funded by public authorities, such as support for the homeless, literally feeding in many cases such groups as teenagers who've had to leave home, migrants who don't qualify for State aid, and people who can't cope for reasons like drug use or bullying with official homelessness support.

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  2. Thankyou for our kind commnents.

    Looking carefully at the NI regs I think I agree with your interpretation and this is much broader than the government originally intended so actually represents a concession to religious groups, which as you point out could be quite harmful in some circumstances.

    It is therefore rather imperative that the regs don't get any further diluted.

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