Mon, Oct 16, 2006 - Page 6 News List

British Cabinet at war over new gay rights legislation

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

The British Cabinet has been in open warfare over new gay rights legislation after British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic, blocked the plans following protests from religious organizations.

Education Secretary Alan Johnson was so angry with the move that he wrote a letter to Kelly three weeks ago, telling her that the new rights should not be watered down.

The battle between what is being dubbed the government's "Catholic tendency" and their more liberal colleagues centers on proposals to stop schools, companies and other agencies refusing services to people purely because of their sexuality.

Blair, who sent three of his children to Catholic schools, is said to be anxious about the impact on faith schools and faith-based adoption agencies, which are demanding to be exempt from the law.

Kelly has now delayed the introduction of the new laws for consideration of what a spokesman said were "difficult issues." Johnson is leading the opposition to watering down the laws.

"His department has in the past taken the faith schools' line but Johnson is saying they have got to be sensible about this," a senior government source said.

"You [just] can't have Satan worshippers going into the local church to have their annual meeting, but if there's a publicly funded school and it wants to open its facilities to everyone else but not a local gay and lesbian group -- that's discrimination," he added.

The proposed measures would ban discrimination over the provision of goods and services, meaning for example that hotels which banned gay couples from sharing a room could be prosecuted.

In turn, gay bars would also have to be open to straight clients. More broadly, the rules potentially affect everything from fertility clinics' right to refuse lesbian couples IVF treatment to whether the tourism industry can promote heterosexuals-only honeymoon resorts, drawing several government departments into the row.

Faith schools have, however, led the protest, arguing that the rules could affect teaching about sex or require them to let gay groups hold meetings on their premises after hours. Catholic adoption agencies fear being forced to allow gay couples to adopt children. The Catholic church, which regards homosexuality as a sin, has suggested adoption agencies would close down rather than obey.

Johnson, who had originally agreed to the proposals when he was trade and industry secretary before a governmental reorganization transferred the issue into Kelly's department, is understood to be dismayed that they are now in jeopardy.

The issue has also tested opposition Conservative party leader David Cameron's progressive credentials, with senior Conservatives still locked in debate about their response.

The new regulations were due to have been introduced this month. That has been delayed until next April after what a spokeswoman for Kelly's Department of Communities and Local Government said was an unusually large number of representations.

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