The BBC and the Guardian are reporting demonstrations by Christians, Jews and Muslims to protest against new regulations outlawing discrimination in the provisions of services on the grounds of sexual orientation (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6243323.stm). At an initial look, many of the claims being made by the protestors are bogus. As examples of what the changes might mean they cite:
Critics say they would mean hotels could not refuse to provide rooms for gay couples, and religious groups would be obliged to rent out halls for “gay wedding” receptions.
They also argue a Christian, Jewish or Muslim printer could be forced to print a flyer for a gay night club, or a teacher would have to break the law to promote heterosexual marriage over homosexual civil partnership.
I have looked at the Northern Irish regulations (the only ones currently published). These are The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 (http://www.opsi.gov.uk/sr/sr2006/nisr_20060439_en.pdf). I don’t pretend to be a lawyer, but there are fairly wide-ranging exemptions in the regulations for religious organisations and organisations promoting religion (s 16), so that seems to me to eliminate the church halls bit. The education section (s 11) is mainly concerned with not denying gay pupils places at schools. The only way in which promotion of marriage in schools might conceivably be seen as breaking the regulations is if it could be taken as ‘harassment’ (creating an intimidating or humiliating environment). Unless teachers are dealing with the issue with particular insensitivity, marriage discussions are safe.
On the issue of services, it is now unlawful for companies and individual traders to refuse on principle to provide services to gay people. However, the provision is ‘on the same terms as are normal in relation to other members of the public’. Printers don’t have to print material for gay night-clubs if they don’t do it for straight night-clubs. Magazines don’t have to take advertising for material that they think is unsuitable for their magazine. I think, however, they are right that it will be impossible for hotels and bed and breakfast establishments to refuse to take gay couples.
Having disposed of most of the bogus assertions about the regulations, what about the underlying argument? It is being presented by Christians arguing against the regulation that they should not be forced to do something that is against their religion. For those who do not adhere to any religion, religious reasons for any moral decision obviously give no basis for discrimination. What about if you consider that religious reasons may in some cases justify moral decisions?
Firstly, there are problems in saying that wishing to discriminate is automatically acceptable if it is religiously-motivated. For example, suppose you follow a religion (or a sect) that sincerely believes that mixed-race marriages are sinful or alternatively that Jewish-Gentile marriages are sinful. Should you therefore be allowed to ban such couples from your B&B? Even most religious people would agree that such discrimination is wrong. (Note that these marriages, like gay relationships, are relationships that people have chosen to enter into, so the discrimination is not based on a factor beyond their control, such as race or sex).
The argument for discrimination essentially boils down (as Lord Mackay puts it, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6243949.stm) to:
What they [the regulations] are saying is if you are offering services you must be prepared to allow people to practise actions that you believe are wrong.
Or as Thomas Cordrey of the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship puts it (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6243323.stm):
Christians…cannot and must not be forced to actively condone and promote sexual practices which the Bible teaches are wrong.
The idea that Christians are being forced to promote homosexuality, is, as I’ve shown above, pretty much bogus. The real argument is whether individual Christians/Jews/Muslims, when providing services to others, should be expected to tolerate behaviour that they believe is morally wrong. (I would note that not all members of these religions believe that homosexual acts are morally wrong, but let’s assume the case of someone who does sincerely believe this). The problem is that most jobs offering a service at some point require workers to tolerate (or even actively assist) some behaviour that is morally wrong or offensive by Christian standards. If you’re a Christian librarian you will have to do some selection/cataloguing/issuing of books on witchcraft, war porn, dubious get-rich principles etc. If you’re a solicitor you will periodically get clients whose behaviour seems distasteful or immoral to you. If you’re a check-out assistant or waiter you sometimes have to assist gluttony or excessive drinking. In many jobs you’re assisting (in some small way) an emphasis on materialism and an obsession with money. If you are a Catholic owner of a B&B then every time you rent out a room to a heterosexual couple you are potentially aiding them to commit the mortal sins of adultery, fornication, masturbation or using contraceptives during intercourse, not to mention the pride, envy, sloth, gluttony, anger or avarice they may be committing on your premises. In other words, to find an entirely ethically pure job is near impossible. (There are obviously also some jobs where breaches of your ethical code would be so pervasive as to make them unsuitable for you).
What this suggests is that the government forcing some believers to tolerate occasional instances of behaviour that they disapprove of is not disproportionate. It can only be seen as disproportionate if the attitude is taken that homosexual acts are a uniquely serious sin, one with which no compromises can be made. I can see no justification in the Bible to believe that. The classic Biblical condemnation of homosexual acts is probably 1 Corinthians 6:9. (Probably, because there are still arguments between Biblical scholars about who actually is covered). But until the Christians lobbying against the regulations are equally demanding the right to refuse to provide services to idolaters, adulterers, the greedy, drunkards, revilers or robbers, then I am not convinced that it is simply the Bible that is inspiring them. Instead, it is the kind of religious bigotry that gives so much ammunition to the more militant atheists of Britain.