The moral cowardice of a Government that relies on judges to fight for gay rights

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Again and again, we see the same pattern. Even when the Labour Government has decent, liberal instincts, it seems too frightened to act on those instincts because of a permanent, obsessive fear of tabloid headlines. The Government is unwilling to stand up and loudly proclaim what, if anything, it believes in.

Again and again, we see the same pattern. Even when the Labour Government has decent, liberal instincts, it seems too frightened to act on those instincts because of a permanent, obsessive fear of tabloid headlines. The Government is unwilling to stand up and loudly proclaim what, if anything, it believes in.

Even leaving to one side the question of Section 28, which outlaws the "promotion" (ie open discussion) of homosexuality, we are still saddled with a raft of legislation which discriminates between heterosexuals and gays on a daily basis. It clearly makes no sense at all - and yet Britain has seemed determined to wait for European judges before making a move. It was just the same story with gays in the armed forces.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg yesterday ruled in favour of ADT, a gay man known only by his initials who was prosecuted in Britain because of what he and friends had done behind closed doors. Their crime: that there were five of them, not two. If this had been a heterosexual romp, that would not have been a problem for the police; because this was an all-male event, however, ADT was prosecuted for "gross indecency". There was no hint of compulsion; the case could be brought because the men had made a video, though there was no suggestion the video would end up in the public domain.

In short, Yorkshire police were happy to prosecute consenting adults who were minding their own business. Following the Strasbourg ruling, Britain will be obliged to pay ADT £33,000 in costs and damages. As the court rightly noted, the group sex was "purely and genuinely private", and his conviction in 1996 was therefore interference with "respect for his private life".

Nobody is asking the Government to "approve of" group sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual - any more than the Government is expected to "approve of" our choice of home décor. It is merely necessary to acknowledge that this is an area where governments need not become legally involved. Consenting adults have an absolute right to decide on their private choices. Nor is this a question of "anything goes". The issues of non-consent, for example, are important for gays and heterosexuals alike. The Government is right to tighten the laws on rape and sexual assault (forced oral sex will, for example, under proposals revealed last week, be treated as rape for the first time), and to offer greater legal protection to children.

The possible retention of laws that make distinctions on the basis of a person's sexuality, by contrast, suggests a continued failing to understand the obvious truth that oranges are not the only fruit. Under British law, gays are still discriminated against in many contexts, including adoption and jobs. Even public displays of affection - holding hands, or a peck on the cheek - remain for the moment a theoretically prosecutable offence.

It is a matter of regret that the Government insists on having its arm twisted into doing the right thing. Tony Blair is still much too worried about trying to present Labour as "entirely conventional" (as he put it) on family matters. Those tabloids that remain intent on gay-bashing will continue to do so, however hard Mr Blair tries to soothe their indignation. The Government should grasp the moral nettle by pointing out that intolerance is simply wrong. Failure to do so must be recognised as moral cowardice on a grand scale.

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