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A queer rally

The torch-lit protest by religious groups against gay rights regulations looked like a game of 'victim one-upmanship'.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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Last night, the UK House of Lords debated the Northern Ireland Sexual Orientation Regulations, designed to prevent discrimination against gays in the provision of goods and services and due to be implemented across the UK by April. The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship staged a torch-lit rally in protest against the new guidelines on the streets outside. They sang sombre (and out-of-tune) versions of Christian classics such as ‘This Little Light of Mine’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘All Hail King Jesus’.

The religious protesters don’t want to be required by law to serve, support or encourage gays. In other words, they feel it’s discriminatory that they should not be able to discriminate. No House of Lords should compromise their right to serve the Lord, they argued. So while the lords deliberated over Democratic Unionist peer Lord Morrow’s motion that the Northern Ireland regulations should be annulled and amended, outside various religious groups asked: ‘What about our rights?’. The whole thing provided a grim snapshot of the degradation of the idea of liberty today, and the way in which the rights discussion has effectively become a game of ‘victim one-upmanship’ between different minority groups – in this case between gay rights groups and religious outfits.

‘Rights’ and ‘liberties’ were recurring phrases at the rally. Protesters held placards saying ‘Freedom of conscience’, ‘Freedom to believe’, ‘Freedom from legislation’. Of course, those proposing the anti-discrimination legislation also defend freedom from discrimination. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the new regulations, which amend the 2006 Equality Act, will ‘put into place one of the final pieces of the legal jigsaw, giving lesbians and gay men the same rights as every other UK citizen’.

One young Christian woman I spoke with brought up an example that has been widely cited in the press: ‘the printer scenario.’ If a gay person walks into a Christian, Jewish or Muslim-owned printer shop with a flyer advertising a gay nightclub, the owner would be legally forced to print it. And that might fundamentally go against their beliefs, said the woman. But seriously, how likely is such a scenario? Is it that common for gay or lesbian nightclub promoters to go to probably small, family-owned shops to print flyers for a gay night out? ‘Well, I don’t know any printers myself…’, she admitted.

Various hypothetical scenarios are conjured up to illustrate the apparently bleak and oppressive future Christians and others face under the new regulations. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Christian lawyer Lord Mackay of Clashfern asked: ‘Will it be unlawful for a bookseller to stock books advocating marriage and deploring homosexual practices?’ Well, marriage guidance books, or the Bible, will not be banned under the new guidelines. According to Labour MP and Equality Act campaigner, Angela Eagle, religious freedom is not being curtailed and anyone can argue against homosexuality if they want to. ‘What this law does is say it’s wrong to put a sign up outside a pub or hotel saying “no gays”.’

Lord Mackay also asked whether a teacher of religious education will breach the harassment provisions of the regulations if he or she teaches that homosexual practice is sinful. ‘The possibility of effects on individuals pursuing their ordinary calling is very large’, he says (1). However, there has been, and should be, a distinction between what people believe and practise in private and what they are expected to do as part of a public job or role; Christians are at liberty to worship as they see fit, but if they work in public institutions then they are expected to adhere to secular public standards.

Both sides of the debate seem keen to carve out a victim niche for themselves. Backers of the new legislation talk about gays and lesbians being forbidden entry to certain hotels or refused services in certain shops, as if these are regular occurrences. In fact, this kind of thing is increasingly rare, and usually happens in those League of Gentlemen-style places where ‘locals’ may not have quite caught up with the pace of change. For example, how often do you see the kind of sign mentioned by Angela Eagle, saying ‘No gays’? Such things might not be pleasant, but can we really expect the law to put an end to all forms of discrimination, in everyone’s heads, everywhere in the country? That is highly unrealistic.

At the same time, Christians and other religious groups present themselves as the victims of ‘secular tyranny’, who are having their rights trampled on. A man from Islamic Forum Europe told me he wants to protect his faith from these new regulations. ‘Homosexuality is not normal – that’s our core belief’, he said. But in what way is Islam threatened by the new rules? Does he really believe gays will start rushing into mosques and turning things on their heads? ‘Yes. Maybe simply because they want to challenge things. They are entering our territory and we shouldn’t have to go against our faith to accommodate others.’ The idea that practicing homosexuals have been waiting for a piece of legislation like this so that they can storm the mosques is pure fantasy.

The man told me that soon Muslims will ‘feel the way gays felt a decade ago’. It seems this is a competition of victimhood, with backers of the legislation claiming it is intolerable that gays are not tolerated by certain shops or cafes owned by religious people, and religious worshippers claiming it is intolerable that they should be forced to tolerate gays in their shops or cafes. This looks to be less about real liberty, and more a product of today’s culture of victimhood, where everyone demands protection from everyone else.

In the end, the religious protesters’ prayers were not answered. Lord Morrow’s call to annul the regulations was defeated by 199 votes to 68.

(1) James Mackay, Should religious beliefs bow to gay rights?, Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2006

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Topics Politics

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