NI Religious Groups Launch Challenge To Gay Rights Laws

New gay rights laws for Ulster – which aim to criminalise discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation – are set to be challenged today in the High Court.

A group of religious organisations and Christian charities are seeking a judicial review of the controversial regulations – which are set to be introduced in the province within weeks – on the grounds that they infringe religious liberty and were pushed through without a proper consultation process.

The UK-wide regulations were due to be voted on in Parliament in October but the Government put them off for six months because of an unexpectedly high number of responses to a consultation.

However, they have still been fast-tracked in Northern Ireland under direct rule powers, and come into force on January 1.

The Christian Institute, one of the bodies launching the legal challenge, last night said the regulations have been fast-tracked at an ” astonishing” speed and that they could be used to “harass Christians on their beliefs”.

“The regulations bear all the hallmarks of a rushed time-scale. They almost appear to establish a right for homosexuals not to be disagreed with,” said Colin Hart, of the Christian Institute.

“The concerns of religious people and organisations have been trampled over by an unfair consultation process with the resulting laws threatening freedom of religion and conscience.

“We are taking action to protect the many Christian people in Northern Ireland who will become victims of frivolous accusations if these regulations become law.”

However, gay rights activists last night said the religious organisations have a “thin argument” adding that it is not a matter of breaching Christian freedoms but a matter of ensuring that access and opportunities are available for all.

Belfast gay rights activist Jeff Dudgeon said: “I think it is a very thin case they are taking and it seems to me they are working themselves up into a frenzy, however, I am willing to observe the grounds on which they are challenging the regulations. It stands to reason equality legislation is extended to all groups.”

The new laws are to be introduced in a bid to stop shops and businesses discriminating against homosexuals.

It would prevent gays or lesbians being discriminated against in the ” provision of goods and services”.

Under the laws it will become an offence for hotels to refuse to rent a room to a gay couple or for printers to decline to accept orders to produce gay advertising or magazines.

The regulations also make harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation – and not simply overt victimisation – illegal.