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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 January 2007, 15:49 GMT
Discrimination law controversy
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Houses of Parliament
Measures will be debated in the House of Lords

It will come as little surprise to ministers that the issue of discrimination is the focus for one of the first political controversies of the New Year.

The regulations which have already provoked a furore in Northern Ireland are the same as those which the government planned to introduce in England and Wales last autumn under the Equality Act 2006.

But a row in Cabinet caused a postponement. Now, the stage is set for a battle in which some parliamentarians, backed by religious groups, will try to amend the rules so that there is no automatic protection on grounds of sexual orientation.

Discrimination prohibited

Following a key European Union Framework Directive in 2000, the government was obliged to bring in rules outlawing discrimination on a range of issues in employment.

So, it is unlawful to sack someone because they are gay, lesbian or bisexual or because of their religious beliefs.

But this left a range of goods and services, such as the provision of hotel accommodation or the renting out of premises, unregulated.

This is a classic case of competing equalities
Gary Bowker,
Incomes Data Services

This gap has been filled by the Equality Act. It prohibits discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation, though with a small number of clearly-defined exemptions.

Ironically, most are for the protection of religious groups, faith schools and faith-based charities.

So, will the regulations enable a gay couple to demand the right to stay in a B&B, despite the owner's strong religious beliefs against homosexuality?

"This is a classic case of competing equalities," said Gary Bowker, a discrimination and diversity specialist with Incomes Data Services.

"I can easily see this issue going to court where the issue will be, 'which right trumps the other?' And I imagine the Human Rights Act will be invoked as part of the argument."

Religious concerns

Indeed, Section 13 of the Human Rights Act was inserted specifically to assuage the anxieties of religious groups.

So, it is by no means certain that some of the claims being made by opponents of the regulations, either in Northern Ireland or in the rest of the United Kingdom, have any legal weight to them.

In Northern Ireland, the government's more immediate concern is to fight off a judicial review which has been brought by a number of Christian organisations.

This argues that the introduction of the regulations was unlawful because the consultation period was unreasonably short.

But ministers know that the mixture of religion, sexual orientation and legal compulsion is a combustible one and the consequences of an emotive campaign highly unpredictable.

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