Thursday, 8 March 2007

Sexual Orientation (Goods and Services) Regulations 2007 Published

After many delays due to the level of interest and controversy generated, the Sexual Orientation (Goods and Services) Regulations 2007 were published yesterday by the government. The regulations as they now stand are almost similar to those already in place in Northern Ireland since January and do not allow for further discriminations from religious organisations than the expected and acceptable doctrinal exemption.

Faith-based adoption agencies are given until the end of 2008 to comply with the new regulations following the vocal protest from the Catholic Church on this respect. Insurance companies and National Blood Service have also been granted limited opt-outs.

Right until last week, there were fears that the Regulations in England, wales and particularly Scotland might be compromised but this did not turn out to be the case. This is obviously very good news; showing the govermnent's committment to true equality.

While religious groups are being placated with the measures described above, the gay community however find itself obliged to open up its commercial venues to straight people. I personally do really see how this could be a problem. It is obviously quite difficult to prove on a bar or club's doorstep that someone is not gay so a ban of straight people if such thing has ever happened seems to me fairly illusory. More to the point perhaps, we have not yet attained such a level of acceptance that straight people will come out (!) in droves to attend gay clubs and bars. And even is that happened, "de-ghayttoisation" can only be a positive things.

A few days ago, in another set back for religious based discrimination, 62-year-old Andrew McClintock lost the legal action he had brought in an employment tribunal against the Lord Chancellor. He claimed that his Bible-influenced opinions mean that he should be allowed to pick and choose which adoption cases he would hear as a magistrate.

The text of the regulations still has to go through a vote in Parliament before its planned implementation on 30th April but the word on the gay grapevine is that problems are unlikely. MPs and Lords apparently feel very good about the stance they took during a previous vote against the possible annulment of the Northern Irish version of the SOR, in January. Political commentators at the time, remarked on how MPs and some cabinet ministers seem to take this as an opportunity to challenge Tony Blair's waning authority.

This is all very positive but until, the regulations have actually been implemented, there is still a danger that things go awry. Already Catholic organisations are complaining (wrongly it seems) that, as per a report from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights published last week, the "new regulations may limit moral teaching in British schools [in that] [...] religious schools [will] be required to modify their religious instruction to comply with the government-approved doctrine of "non-discrimination."":

The report says the regulations will not "prevent pupils from being taught as part of their religious education the fact that certain religions view homosexuality as sinful," but they may not teach "a particular religion's doctrinal beliefs as if they were objectively true.” Published February 26, the report says, "We do not consider that the right to freedom of conscience and religion requires the school curriculum to be exempted from the scope of the sexual orientation regulations."
In the meantime, a Judicial Review mounted by the right wing Christian Institute against the Northern Irish regulation has received support from the Catholic Church. As a result, the date of the hearing, orignially set for the current week, has been moved to 4th June.
The High Court in Belfast has given the Roman Catholic Church the right to submit substantial evidence against the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) in Northern Ireland.[...]

The Roman Catholic Church is not a co-applicant in the case but their initiative demonstrates that the regulations have upset both communities in the Province.

Due to the weight of evidence submitted against the Government the judge has extended the time set aside for the court case from two to three days and set a new date for the hearing of 4 June.
I am of course no lawyer, but it seems to me that this challenge is simply a waste of time and money (which could both be used more effectively for a worthwhile cause). Even if the Judge finds that indeed the consultation was not done properly, this will have nothing to do with the content of the Regulations which can probably therefore remain in place.

So, we can be fairly certain that the SOR will be implemented at the end of April and with them another defining step towards full equality will be made. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which replaced the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 and partially legalised homosexual acts between men and it is 50 years since the process that led to the act was started with the publication of the Wolfenden Report.

This has been a long and arduous struggle undertaking by many anonymous, every day heros but possibly nothing as difficult as what is now facing us: not changing the law but changing and winning hearts and minds. Bring individuals to recognise that we are not that different from them, are not a threat to who they are and can therefore be accepted, at last.

To read my (growing number of) previous posts on the subject, please click here or on "Sexual Orientation Regulations" in the right hand menu.

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