Northern Ireland debates gay equality law

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The new Sexual Orientation Regulations may lead to harassment claims from gay pupils against teachers, Northern Ireland MPs warned today.

Beginning an Assembly debate on whether Northern Ireland should delay the regulations as in the rest of the UK until April 2007, Democratic Unionsist MP Jeffrey Donalldson warned that the laws will create an ‘intimidating environment’ for teachers.

Mr Donaldson told the Assembly, “If a teacher teaches orthodox

Christian belief that homosexual practice is sinful, then a pupil who self-identifies as being gay could make a claim for harassment, claiming it has had the effect of violating their dignity or of creating an intimidatory, humiliating or offensive environment.

“Is that the sort of situation we want to place our teachers in today in Northern Ireland?”

He also pointed out that other religions such as Judaism and Islam also view homosexuality as sinful, the Press Association reports.

Mr Donaldson has called for a debate asking for the law to be delayed by the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, as in the rest of the UK, for further consultation, claiming the regulations will inhibit religious rights.

It is due in January 2007.

The new laws aim to prevent discrimination towards the gay community in the provision of goods and services, but the legislation has caused a backlash from Christian leaders and politicians who believe it will criminalise their faith.

It has increased tensions between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Despite admitting she had not read the Northern Ireland legislation, Assembly member Arlene Foster, said there should be debate, “I have to say I am concerned in relation to the regulations. To me initially there seems to be a clash of rights between those who are Bible belief Christians and those who are gay and lesbian. It is a classic case of a clash of rights.

“But I hope that there is a very good and a very open debate in the Assembly. What I do not want to see is people voting a certain way because their party votes in a certain way. I do not believe that will be the case in my party.”

She was criticised by Sinn Fein`s Caitriona Ruane and Alliance Party leader David Ford.

Speaking at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s annual conference in Belfast, Ms Ruane said: “I am not saying there should not be a debate. It is the way the motion is formed that I am critical of. I think it is framed in a way that is gay bashing.

“I also do not accept this is about a clash of rights. Christians, Muslims do not have a right to discriminate. Nobody has a right to discriminate.”

Alliance leader David Ford said: “I have no problems with people expressing their personal beliefs. I have concerns that Monday`s debate will end up being divisive because there will be a total lack of respect among a number of speakers.”

As the Northern Ireland Assembly has no legislative powers while it is suspended, today’s meeting will be nothing more than a talking shop.