No room for dissent in U.K.’s ‘Equality Act’

The United Kingdom has seen the passage of a series of new laws and implementation documents under the Labour government that have created a state of unease about the future of religious freedom in Britain. Many have commented on the slide towards a heavy-handed state intolerance of religious dissent from the secularist ideologies, particularly as they relate to homosexuality, and some religious leaders are publicly anticipating a period of persecution of religious belief.

In the first weeks of January 2007, the news was full of the debate in Britain over the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) of the 2006 Equality Act that will require religious schools, private businesses and all social agencies to conform to homosexual ideology.

The SORs purport to be an attempt to stop unjust discrimination against homosexuals in the providing of goods and services. But the government has admitted that the regulations are “not just about legislation, it is about ultimately changing the culture of our society.”

The regulations have already come into effect in Northern Ireland after a brief fight by religious and conservative politicians. The regulations were approved by a Commons committee after the government gave its 16 members just 17 hours notice of the hearing. Only 90 minutes were allocated for the House debate that involved just one MP other than three front-bench spokesmen.

The law came before the House of Lords for a ratifying vote on March 21. Peers were not able to amend the proposals.

“The truth is these new laws will prevent Christians acting in accordance with their conscience, whether they are running an adoption agency or a business,” Andrea Williams, spokeswoman for the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship told the Daily Telegraph.

An attempt to have Catholic charitable agencies exempted from the SORs was the subject of weeks of acrimonious debate in Parliament and the press in January. Cormac Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, Britain’s leading Catholic prelate, had told the government that rather than conform to the regulations, the church may be forced to close its 13 adoption agencies that handle the bulk of Britain’s “difficult-to-place” children.

Under pressure from his caucus, Prime Minister Tony Blair decreed that religious conscience could not be allowed to stand in the way of full implementation of the law. A delaying period would be offered the churches and religious organizations to let them work out the implications.

Since then, the Joint Committee on Human Rights issued a document to be used to guide implementation that said religious schools would be required to adjust their curriculum to avoid giving homosexual students the impression that their orientation was “sinful or morally wrong.” The report says the regulations will not “prevent pupils from being taught as part of their religious education the fact that certain religions view homosexuality as sinful,” but they may not teach “a particular religion’s doctrinal beliefs as if they were objectively true.”

Fr. Tim Finigan, founder of the Association of Priests for the Gospel of Life and a lecturer in theology, wrote that the government’s interpretation of the SORs may represent the end of freedom of religious expression in Britain’s schools. “Make no mistake – this proposal will make it illegal for Catholic schools to teach that the Catholic faith is true,” said Fr. Finigan. “If the recommendations of the committee are accepted, it is difficult to see how Catholic schools could continue in Britain.”

In addition to directly strong-arming compliance with the homosexual political agenda, the government has changed the Charities Act, removing the “advancement of religion” from the list of criteria to be considered for charitable tax status. A document from the Charity Commission on implementation adopted the methodology of 19th-century French anti-clerical governments to force religious charities “to demonstrate that they deliver public benefit” as interpreted by the heavily secularist government authorities.

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