Church leaders expressed fears last night that Christians could be sued under proposed new laws to protect gays from harassment.
The Government is proposing to introduce the laws to protect individuals from hostile or humiliating “environments” as part of an overhaul of discrimination legislation.
But Christian lawyers and the Church of England warned that Christians could face legal action if they offended gays by expressing the traditional teaching that homosexual sex was immoral.
The row follows the bitter battle last year over the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which many Christians fear will erode religious freedom and are part of a growing secularisation of society.
The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship said that the new proposals, which may be included in a Single Equality Bill, could allow gays to sue if they heard a sermon that condemned homosexuality.
It added that while a church could “gently refuse membership” to an unrepentant, practising homosexual, “that person, if they felt that they had been put in a ‘humiliating position’, could sue the Church.”
The Fellowship also warned that suggestions that local authorities should have a duty to promote gay equality could be “taken too far” and result in state funding being removed from Christian projects.
The Church of England, in its official submission to the Government’s consultation on the Bill, said the proposed harassment laws were unnecessary.
If such legislation was introduced, however, it would be “crucial” to ensure that a religion’s followers, and not just clergy, could continue “to express the views of their faith about homosexual conduct, including challenging people to lead lives consistent with the teaching of the Church.
“To deny Christians (and followers of other faiths which take a similar view) such a right would amount to an unjustified interference with the right to manifest religious belief.”
The Church added that the proposals “should not prevent church schools from continuing to teach in accordance with such a school’s religious ethos.”
Government plans to extend the same harassment laws to religion and belief were also criticised.
The Church said it could lead to people objecting to religious symbols such as crosses on hospital walls on the grounds that they were an affront to atheists.
It added that the proposals were in danger of undermining religious freedom.
“We have been concerned at what has seemed in some recent debates to be a trend towards regarding religion and belief as deserving of a lesser priority in discrimination legislation than the other strands where the law seeks to bring protection,” it said.
Religion and belief seemed to be treated as subordinate to other rights because they were deemed to be a personal choice, but this was “a false analysis”, it continued.
“Nor is religious equality achieved by the elimination of expressions of religious belief in public institutions such as schools or local authorities.
“This does not amount to, or achieve, equal respect for different religious groups and those of no religion; rather it amounts to an enforced secularism that fails to respect religious belief at all.”
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