Dead heat in North's gay equality vote

A Northern Assembly motion condemning plans by the British government to introduce equality legislation for gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the New Year fell today after a dead heat.

Democratic Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson and his Assembly colleague George Dawson had claimed Northern Secretary Peter Hain's plan to introduce a new law on January 1 would place Christian-run businesses unfairly on the wrong side of the law if they refused access to their goods and services on "ethical grounds".

After a tense two-hour debate at Stormont, 39 Assembly members voted in favour of the DUP motion and 39 against.

The dead heat meant that the motion was not carried.

DUP sources claimed the vote was tied because Sinn Féin was able to use the vote of one of its Assembly members who died in September.

The St Andrews Agreement Act enables parties to use the vote of an Assembly member who has died but has not yet been replaced.

West Belfast MLA Michael Ferguson died in September.

During the debate, the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party criticised the British government for implementing the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations in the North on January 1 ahead of the rest of the UK and for holding only a two-month consultation in the North.

Mr Donaldson claimed the regulations would punish people with deeply held religious convictions.

He also alleged it would make schools which teach traditional Christian views liable to a harassment claim from gay pupils if they taught homosexuality was sinful.

The Lagan Valley MP said: "All six of the world's major religions are opposed to homosexual practice. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all teach that homosexual practice is sinful.

"Not all Honourable Members may agree with that, but it is a sincerely held view by Christians and people of other faiths. The regulations will interfere with the freedom to manifest to one's religion because these are new restrictions.

"The restrictions will apply to all aspects of society and the restrictions are proposed to apply to religious teachings, observances and practices and services offered by religious organisations to the community."

Sinn Féin equality spokeswoman Caitriona Ruane accused the DUP of whipping up homophobic sentiment with the motion.

"This motion is part of yesterday's agenda, part of the bad old days of the past," the South Down MLA argued.

"Move on - show leadership. Days of second-class citizenship and hiding our identities are gone."

Ulster Unionist equality spokesman Dermot Nesbitt warned that the law would leave Christian bookshops and adoption agencies vulnerable to harassment claims, despite their deeply-held views.

He also criticised the way the British government limited the consultation to two months in the North.

"There are certain fundamental issues that require to be addressed and the process by which this Government is taking this Act forward not only denies that proper process of equality throughout the United Kingdom but also denies the rights of people who truly feel very concerned," the South Down MLA said.

SDLP equality spokeswoman Patricia Lewsley, whose party`s youth wing staged a protest against the motion outside Parliament Buildings, accused the DUP of scaremongering and said it was untrue to claim that the regulations would punish faith-run schools.

"All they will prevent is discrimination and harassment - not the teaching of religious doctrine," the Lagan Valley MLA countered.

"Harassment only occurs if there is unwanted conduct which has purpose or intent of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, degrading or offensive environment."

Cross-community Alliance Party leader David Ford acknowledged that the Government`s consultation period during August and September was not ideal.

Nevertheless, the South Antrim MLA noted there were 673 responses which covered all the main religious groupings in the North and all the key organisations with an interest.

"I am not sure that there would have been any different response had there been another four weeks or another 14 weeks," he said.

"To suggest that simply the timescale was a major problem doesn`t seem to be going very far."

The leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionists David Ervine opposed the DUP motion.

"Equality is equality is equality," the East Belfast MLA declared.

"If any human being is left out of the entitlement for equality, then we deny ourselves proper equality. It is either for everyone or it is for no one.

"The Democratic Unionist Party have made great play out of the fact that the Secretary of State is determining that this Assembly should have this legislation stuffed down its throat. He might well be doing us a favour.

"He may well have been doing us favours in the past. I don't hear too many raucous comments from some members of that party.

"For instance, he has just declared there will be an election, having previously declared that there would be an election in 2008. I didn't hear a raucous complaint about that. So you don't mind an Order in Council when it suits you."

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