Peers reject challenge to gay discrimination laws

Efforts to scrap new laws ensuring firms cannot refuse their services to gay people on the grounds of sexual orientation were defeated by the House of Lords last night.

Peers voted 199 to 68 to reject Lord Morrow’s call to scrap the Northern Ireland Sexual Orientation Regulations, which came into force in the province on January 1st and will be enforced in England and Wales this spring.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) peer had argued that the new law, which come as part of the Equality Act 2006, would “seriously undermine” the rights of people who objected to homosexuality on the grounds of faith.

His argument was supported by many Christians, some of whom protested against regulations outside parliament last night and will also be mounting a high court challenge to the laws on the basis that they were introduced without proper consultation.

“In most circumstances, the new laws will not be problematic. Homosexual people are entitled to be able to buy their groceries and have their bins emptied, just like everyone else – but the regulations go much further,” Lord Morrow told peers.

He argued that bed and breakfast owners and Christian old people’s homes could be sued for not giving a double bed to homosexual civil partners, or wedding photographers could have to pay compensation for refusing to take bookings for civil partnerships.

“I am firmly convinced that the freedom to manifest one’s religion is seriously undermined. The regulations threaten to override the consciences and free speech of Christians and others who object to homosexual practice,” Lord Morrow said.

However, Lord Smith of Finsbury, the former cabinet minister and the UK’s first openly gay MP, said he was “puzzled” by the objections to the regulations, saying they appeared to be arguing for “the right to discriminate and the right to harass”.

“I believe very strongly that people have a right to believe that homosexuality is in some way wrong. I believe very strongly that people have a right to hold views that may be bigoted and discriminatory,” he told the House of Lords.

“What I do not believe is that they have the right to put those beliefs into action in a way that affects adversely the life and livelihood of other human beings. These regulations very simply seek to prevent that.”

The government will be pleased with the turnout and the result of last night’s vote – ministers argue that the regulations are merely an opportunity to extend the same right to gays and lesbians that already exist for everybody else.

However, the introduction of the regulations across the rest of the UK may still be held up by the judicial review in March, while concerns remain about the commitment of the minister in charge of the legislation, Ruth Kelly, who is a devout Roman Catholic.