Special report: Gay rights - how hardline Christians use shock tactics against new law

Former lord chancellor backs religious coalition that claims new equality rules for homosexuals threaten freedom of belief. Anthony Barnes reports
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The Independent Online

One of Baroness Thatcher's closest political allies is behind a push to derail new laws designed to end discrimination against homosexuals.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former lord chancellor during the Thatcher era, is the patron of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship (LCF), part of a coalition of religious groups opposed to the new rules which they say will ride roughshod over their beliefs. The new rules, which ban those offering goods and services from discriminating against gays and lesbians, will force them to act against their consciences, they say.

The rules aim to stop, for example, gay couples being turned away from hotels. But faith groups believe there should be an opt-out clause in situations where it goes against their religious beliefs. Lord Mackay said: "People of faith are having their freedom to live according to their beliefs taken away from them."

His group is lining up with a network of black Christian groups, Coherent and Cohesive Voice (CCV), to urge believers to exert pressure on the Government to allow a religious get-out clause. The ideological battle has gathered pace after CCV placed a full-page advert in The Times last week urging believers to lobby for an exemption.

Regulations are being rushed through in Northern Ireland, where they will come into force next month, and almost identical rules for the rest of the UK will be published soon to become law in April.

CCV's co-founder, Ade Omooba, said: "The Government is asking us to accept something that is against our beliefs." But Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of the gay pressure group Stonewall, said the ad was a "desperate" attempt to whip up a storm.

Faith groups say they will be forced to teach that gay marriages should have the same status as heterosexual marriages and churches that refuse to hire a hall out to gay groups would be caught by the new rules.

But Mr Summerskill said the rules were designed to counter everyday discrimination. "It's an ongoing problem. We know of women being denied smear tests because they were lesbians."

Some groups may try to consider ways to get round the rules or challenge them.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, the head of public policy at the LCF, said: "It is quite plain that the church won't be able to act contrary to its conscience and will go for some form of civil disobedience."

The gay Conservative MP Alan Duncan was dismissive of the campaign."These people are fighting an ill-judged, phoney war," he said.

Labour MP Chris Bryant, a former Church of England priest, said: "It's hysteria dressed up as theology."

Additional reporting by Martin Hodgson

The truth about the 'Times' ad

Anti-gay claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

IT SAYS: The new regulations will force schools to promote homosexual civil partnerships (from primary school age) to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage.

THE REALITY: Possible, but highly unlikely to be taught from primary school age.

IT SAYS: A printing shop run by a Christian could be forced to print fliers promoting gay sex.

THE REALITY: Possible, but unlikely any gay group would actively seek out a Christian printer.

IT SAYS: A family-run B&B would have to let a double room to a transsexual couple even if the family think it in their children's best interests to refuse.

THE REALITY: The regulations do not cover transsexuals. There is also an exception which applies where someone would be living beside a family.

IT SAYS: It would become illegal for a heterosexual policeman, fireman or member of the armed forces to refuse to join an event promoting the homosexual way of life.

THE REALITY: Already covered by 2003 employment regulations.