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Faith groups joined forces in London on Tuesday to try to stop sweeping gay rights laws they say will force them to act against their religious beliefs. They delivered a petition to the queen, and a group of about 1,000 demonstrators staged a torchlit protest outside parliament as the lords discussed the laws.
"Most of the people here are standing for freedom of conscience in the sense of, If you believe something is wrong, the law shouldn't make you do it," one protester, who asked to remain unnamed, told Reuters.
Demonstrators held banners saying "Freedom to Believe" in protest of the legislation, a cornerstone of the United Kingdom's efforts to promote equal rights. The laws would ban discrimination on the basis of sexuality in the provision of goods and services, in a similar way to laws banning sex and race discrimination.
Christian opponents argue the legislation is a major threat to their freedom of conscience and that they should not be penalized for acting according to their beliefs.
But gay rights campaigners say the proposals would simply extend existing antidiscrimination laws to gays. "It would not be acceptable in the areas of race, disability, age, or religion or belief, and is not acceptable here. Either we hold human rights to be universal or we do not," said Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association.
Thomas Cordrey of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, which organized the rally, denied the group was homophobic, saying the regulations did not strike the right balance. "Christians have no desire to discriminate unjustly on the grounds of sexual orientation, but they cannot and must not be forced to actively condone and promote sexual practices which the Bible teaches are wrong."
The legislation, known as the Sexual Orientation Regulations, came into force in Northern Ireland on January 1, but the government postponed its introduction in England and Wales until April due to the scale of opposition. It would mean that hotels could be prosecuted for refusing to provide rooms for gay couples and parishes obliged to rent out halls for gay wedding receptions. Equally, gay bars would not be able to bar straight couples.
Human rights experts say the legislation would be a further step to bring the country in line with other nations that have ruled out discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. "It would be a major setback for the government if it failed to bring in these regulations," Robert Wintemute, professor of human rights at King's College, told Reuters.
The United Kingdom took a major step toward equal rights in December 2005 when it introduced civil partnerships for gay couples, giving them the same rights as heterosexuals but stopping short of calling the arrangement a marriage. Since then more than 15,000 couples have registered, including pop star Elton John and his partner, David Furnish. (Reuters)