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Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2006, 17:01 GMT
Assembly clashes over gay rights
Gay Pride march in Belfast
The assembly debated equality for gays and lesbians
An NI assembly motion condemning government plans to introduce equality legislation for gays, lesbians and bisexuals has fallen after a tied vote.

After a two-hour debate at Stormont, 39 assembly members voted in favour of a DUP motion and 39 against.

The party claimed the new legislation could place Christian-run businesses on the "wrong side of the law".

DUP sources claimed the vote was tied because Sinn Fein was "able to use the vote of a deceased asssembly member".

West Belfast assembly member Michael Ferguson died in September. The St Andrews Agreement Act enables parties to use the vote of an assembly member who has died but has not yet been replaced.

Criticised

During the debate, the DUP said Christian-run businesses would be deemed to be breaking the law "if they refused access to their goods and services on ethical grounds".

Both the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party criticised the government for implementing the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations in Northern Ireland on 1 January ahead of the rest of the UK and for "holding only a two-month consultation".

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson claimed the regulations would make schools which teach traditional Christian views "liable to a harassment claim from gay pupils if they taught homosexuality was sinful".

"All six of the world's major religions are opposed to homosexual practice. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all teach that homosexual practice is sinful," he said.

"The regulations will interfere with the freedom to manifest to one's religion because these are new restrictions."

The debate was held at Stormont
The debate was held at Stormont

Sinn Fein equality spokeswoman Caitriona Ruane accused the DUP of "whipping up homophobic sentiment with the motion".

"This motion is part of yesterday's agenda, part of the bad old days of the past," she said.

"Move on - show leadership. Days of second-class citizenship and hiding our identities are gone."

Ulster Unionist Dermot Nesbitt said the law would "leave Christian bookshops and adoption agencies vulnerable to harassment claims, despite their deeply-held views".

"There are certain fundamental issues that require to be addressed and the process by which this government is taking this act forward not only denies that proper process of equality throughout the United Kingdom, but also denies the rights of people who truly feel very concerned," he said.

SDLP equality spokeswoman Patricia Lewsley, whose party`s youth wing staged a protest against the motion outside Parliament Buildings, accused the DUP of "scaremongering".

"All they will prevent is discrimination and harassment - not the teaching of religious doctrine," she said.

"Harassment only occurs if there is unwanted conduct which has purpose or intent of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, degrading or offensive environment."

Alliance Party leader David Ford acknowledged that the government`s consultation period during August and September "was not ideal".

"I am not sure that there would have been any different response had there been another four weeks or another 14 weeks," he said.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Martina Purdy reports from Stormont on the legislation



SEE ALSO
MSPs vote for same-sex adoption
07 Dec 06 |  Scotland



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