Judge strikes down Sexual Orientation Regulations provision

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The High Court in Northern Ireland has ruled that parts of the Sexual Orientation Regulations must be removed.

In a victory for Evangelical Christian activists, Mr Justice Weatherup said that a provision that protects LGB people from harassment when accessing goods and services should be set aside.

He upheld the rest of the regulations.

Christians who provide goods and services will not be prosectuted for saying they are unwilling to provide them to LGB people.

The removal of harassment protections also applies to schools in Northern Ireland, many of them run by Christian churches.

“The applicants contend that the regulations treat evangelical Christians less favourably than other persons to the extent that they are subject to civil liability for manifesting the orthodox belief in relation to homosexuality,” the judge wrote in his 42-page judgment.

“I am satisfied that the regulations do not treat evangelical Christians less favourably than others.”

The judge ruled that as not a long enough period had been set aside for public consultation on the regulations, the harassment provision should be set aside.

Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, told the BBC:

“It means that freedom of speech is preserved.”

A coalition of Christian groups had been granted permission to seek a judicial review regarding new gay equality laws in Northern Ireland.

The Christian Institute has led calls to rescind the Sexual Orientation Regulations, claiming they were rushed through and constitute an attack on freedom of conscience.

The churches and Christian charities who took the legal action are, The Christian Institute; The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland; The Congregational Union of Ireland; The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland; The Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland; The Fellowship of Independent Methodist Churches; and Christian Camping International (a Christian charity specialising in camping and conferences).

The Roman Catholic Church has also supported the legal challenge, fearful of the effect of the regulations on their schools.

Gay rights group the Coalition on Sexual Orientation and statutory bodies the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission also made submissions to the court in defence of the SORs.

The new regulations outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods, services and education on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Callum Webster, the Christian Institute’s NI officer, told the BBC:

“We are encouraged by the judge’s narrowing of the interpretation of the regulations because he said they will not apply to the school curriculum.”

Colin Hart, Director of the Christian Institute, said when the judicial review was granted:

“The Regulations bear all the hallmarks of a rushed time-scale.

“They almost appear to establish a right for homosexuals not to be disagreed with. They would cover a conversation in a Christian bookshop or a pastoral conversation with a church minister.

“The homosexual harassment provision is so broadly drafted that it nullifies what partial exemptions churches are given.

“A minister can say to a practising homosexual (as he would an adulterer), ‘I’m sorry, you can’t be a member of my church until you repent and turn to Christ,’ but his explanation could be the subject of a harassment claim if the individual is offended.

“A teacher who says that sex is only for marriage could be accused of harassment by a pupil sympathetic to gay rights – and this would also apply to denominational schools.”

The SORs have proved controversial in Northern Ireland.

They were imposed by then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain before self-government resumed.

In January a member of First Minister Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party tried to block them in the House of Lords.

Mr Paisley himself joined protesters outside the Lords, saying: “Are we really Christians and will we stand up for Jesus? We’re here to say that we’re on the Lord’s side.”

In the 1970s the First Minister spearheaded a campaign against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, “Save Ulster From Sodomy,” and as recently as 2005 he led opposition to civil partnerships.

Since taking office in a joint administration with nationalist party Sinn Fein in May the DUP has muted their stance on gay rights.

Unionist MEP Jim Allister, who resigned from the DUP in protest at the decision to go into government with Sinn Fein, has challenged Mr Paisley to state publicly that he will move to rescind the SORs.