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17 January 2007

Your conscience or my rights?

The NUS' LGBT officer gives her views on the attempts by religious groups to to thwart equality laws

By Claire Anderson

Last week, history was made. The threat presented by the religious right to lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s freedom was averted, despite a torch-lit demonstration by men, women and children who claimed that their consciences really could not allow them to treat LGB people as anything better than second class citizens.

Outside and inside the Lords religious conservatives were trying to strike out regulations in the new equality act that outlaw discrimination and harassment of gays, making it illegal to discriminate in providing any goods and services to anyone, (from healthcare to hotels) and were fighting for a wrecking clause that would render them meaningless: “Nothing in these regulations shall force an individual to act against their conscience or strongly held religious beliefs.”

But the reality is that anyone could use their “conscience” to discriminate against gays. And this law does not stop religions from banning gays joining their congregations or becoming priests; it is about organisations or business offering services to the public to offer them equally to all comers.

These people were shouting their message of hate in the name of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Their sentiments have been reflected across UK campuses by advocates of the Pure course, which teaches its adherents that homosexuality is a sin and cannot be tolerated.

An advert in the Times newspaper on 28th November from the ‘Coherent and Cohesive Voice’ of religion warned us of the devastating effects that the new goods and services legislation would have on the delicate morals of our society. Citing a series of extreme and exaggerated situations, the majority of which aren’t even affected by these regulations, they demonstrated just how much of their resources they were willing to spend in order to attack equality for all.

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Wouldn’t it be awful, the right-wing alliance of religious groups exclaims, if a nice Christian family guest-house owner was forced to allow a same-sex couple to stay there, and commit sinful homosexual acts on his/her premises. Or even, heaven forbid, that the teachers at his/her children’s school should be forced to challenge the homophobic bullying that is ruining the lives of their young classmates.

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Religious people recently gained protection from exclusion and harassment on the grounds of their belief, but just imagine if LGB shopkeepers, guest house owners and teachers had argued against this legislation when it was proposed, citing that their conscience didn’t allow them to tolerate providing their services to anyone who believed that homosexuality was wrong. I’m all for freedom of opinion, but don’t use your opinion to try to take my rights away.

The last few years have seen an increase in services being provided by religious institutions, where they can set their own agenda and ‘ethos’. Faith schools and city academies are particularly worrying examples of these, and with religious exclusions from the new regulations, would be free to discriminate against LGB pupils and students. That’s why I think it’s so important that these regulations are adopted wholesale. This is a matter not just concerned with access and freedom, but safety.

The actions of these protesters have been roundly denounced by religious leaders, including a senior member of the Muslim Council of Britain. That’s why I find it impossible to believe the simplistic and facile rhetoric of the protesters, that they are fighting the secularization of our society, and that this equalities legislation is ‘political correctness gone mad’, in what they see as an erosion of society’s morality. These Christians, Muslim and Jews are using their ‘religious convictions’ as a mask for their prejudice.

So, many have framed this debate as a battle for conflicting rights. This is frankly ridiculous. In one corner we have the lesbians, the gays and the bisexuals, requesting their right to protection in the provision of goods and services. In the other, we have the religious right, pleading that their long cherished right to freedom of conscience be protected. But this isn’t a right. I don’t believe that any person has the right to discriminate against another for something that is part of their identity. Forty years ago, black people gained protection from this kind of discrimination. Recently, religious people and groups also became protected. LGB people deserve the same rights as everyone else enjoys – the right to live as equals in society.

But it’s not just the religious right that discriminates against LGB people. Far closer to home, the National Blood Service continues to discriminate against gay and bisexual men by not allowing them to give blood. Statistically, yes, the blood of a man who has sex with men is more likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS than a man who doesn’t. But there are many gay and bisexual men in committed relationships, who take regular tests for STIs, and always practice safer sex. Equally, there are many heterosexual people who do none of these things. To discriminate against gay and bisexual men as a group, rather than prohibiting donation from those who practice high risk sexual activity is plainly both wrong and dangerous. Apart from the risk this poses to the blood supply, it also both perpetuates the myth that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease when it clearly isn’t, and flies in the face of safer-sex information. If the blood service reckons my gay friend’s blood is dirty whether he uses a condom or not, should he really be bothering?

NUS LGBT has been working hard on this issue, with a National Day of Action on 2nd November which saw over 20 demonstrations and information pickets by LGBT students outside blood donation centres up and down the country. We have been working closely with the National Blood Service Selection Advisory Committee and are pleased with the announced review of eligibility to donate. Discrimination like this, from a government body, simply feeds the bigotry of those who don’t believe in equality.

The religious right failed in their attack on January 9th. It is certain, however, that they will continue their challenge to the rights of lesbian gay and bisexual people to live their lives free from discrimination, isolation and abuse. This is no time for complacency. Those who believe in equality for all must continue to fight for the implementation of the goods and services regulations, rather than down tools and assume that this war has been won. I couldn’t do that: my conscience wouldn’t allow it.