More on SOR – How exactly do you define “orientation”?

You can read a copy of the Northern Ireland SOR regulations here and in particular the clauses relating to religious organisations. The issue at hand for myself personally is the protection of the rights of individuals and not just clergy or church bodies.

Section 1 of Section 16 says:

Subject to paragraphs (2) and (8) this regulation applies to an organisation the purpose of which is —

    (a) to practice a religion or belief;(b) to advance a religion or belief;(c) to teach the practice or principles of a religion or belief;(d) to enable persons of a religion or belief to receive any benefit, or to engage in any activity, within the framework of that religion or belief.

which is a pretty good start n’est ce pas? As an ordained minister of the Church of England I am protected in hiring out halls etc by sub-clauses 3 and 4:

(3) Nothing in these Regulations shall make it unlawful for an organisation to which this regulation applies, or for anyone acting on behalf of or under the auspices of such an organisation to which this regulation applies —

    (a) to restrict membership of the organisation;
    (b) to restrict participation in activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices;
    (c) to restrict the provision of goods, facilities and services in the course of activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices; or
    (d) to restrict the use or disposal of premises owned or controlled by the organisation,

in respect of a person on the ground of his sexual orientation.

(4) Nothing in these Regulations shall make it unlawful for a minister

(a) to restrict the provision of goods, facilities or services in the course of activities carried on in the performance of his functions in connection with or in respect of an organisation to which this regulation relates,
(b) to restrict participation in activities carried on in the performance of his functions in connection with or in respect of an organisation to which this regulation relates

in respect of a person on the ground of his sexual orientation.

and that’s all well and good, but I don’t see anything in the legislation which covers the following issues:

  1. Am I covered from refusing Communion to an unrepentant sinner (homosexually active) at a Christian Conference held in a secular hall?
  2. Am I covered from being accused of demeaning language when sharing my testimony OR challenge the morality of homosexual activity at a public meeting, NOT organised by a church or in a church building?
  3. Were I to be a private individual who is not ordained or licenced by a church, would I be immune from prosecution in the above two cases?

My biggest problem with the SOR is I want to know how they will define what a homosexual person is. Will it be defined by biological factors like race or sex discrimination? At the moment without ever meeting you I can take your DNA and tell straight away what sex you are and what race you are. The essence of the discrimination laws of the 1960s and 70s was that these things were natural and immutable and therefore normal variances of human biological development. It is impossible to change your sex (despite chopping bits off or adding them) as your chromosomes will remain XY or XX regardless. The same with race – to change your race you would need to modify every single cell in your body.

When we look at sexual orientation we can’t do the same thing. There is nothing in your genes, your brain or anything biological or biochemical that indicates straight away “yes, this person is gay”. So we’re left with personal identification – i.e. that people are classified as gay NOT because there is some clear biological criteria under which that can be ascertained but rather because they simply claim to be so. Now that’s not to deny in any sense that people are correctly reporting their homosexual orientation (been there, done that – if anybody had told me ten years ago that I was deluding myself about what I was experiencing sexual orientation wise they would have been wrong – period) but it is to point out that the terms under which that identification can be confirmed are different to race and sex. The bottom line is, I would like to see a very clear legal definition of what a gay person is and how it can be clearly identified.

If that happens and the only answer is “someone who engages in sex with someone of the same sex, or who is sexually aroused by someone of the same sex” then we are left with two problems. The first is that the first definition (someone who engages in sex) describes a behaviour separate to orientation and therefore places homosexual activity in the same position as smoking or drinking, both of which are legally discriminated against already (no-smoking zones and bans, alcohol free city-centre zones). To elevate the right to gay sex above the right to smoke is of course blatantly ridiculous.

The second definition (sexually aroused by someone of the same sex) describes a biological response which we can record, but not one which we can source (i.e. we can scientifically observe sexual arousal but we can’t determine prior to the experiment on a fresh subject what that observation is likely to be and why – i.e. the source of orientation). We’re back to the same problem – we can’t adequately, scientifically clarify why sexual orientation is, unlike race or sex.

Perhaps Sexual Behaviour Regulations would be better, but the political problem with that is that it would protect a particular minority behaviour above others.

So, how about this – I wonder about the legality of refusing to rent your private room (B&B or otherwise) to two men on the basis NOT of their orientation but of their sexual practice. As far as I can see there’s nothing in the legislation to prevent that. I’m dying to see the first test case where the prosecution says “no, it was discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation” and the defence replies “prove the sexual orientation of the plaintiff in the same way that you can race or sex and we’ll give way”.

2 Comments on “More on SOR – How exactly do you define “orientation”?

  1. This is a profound posting. The two issues:

    – protections for the individual as opposed to the (religious) organisation, and
    – the question of definition as between ‘orientation’ and practice

    seem to me to be close to the heart of things.

  2. You use ‘race’ and ‘sex’ in this argument as if they were similar; in fact, they are quite different. Every person is either male or female, and can be determined to be so by DNA testing. There is no DNA test for race. In fact, there’s no real definition for race, even though we are all comfortable in using the term, and accept a ‘common sense’ definition for it. But as racial intermarriage trends continue, it will become increasingly difficult to determine a person’s ‘race’. I know of people who self-identify as black, as they have one black parent. But visually, it is very difficult to answer the question “Is this person black or white?”. Sex is always male or female; ‘race’ is spread across a spectrum, where the boundries will grow increasingly blurry over time.
    I have always maintained that the best analogy to sexual orientation is handedness. You cannot tell by looking, whether a person is left or right handed. Handedness is more like race than sex; people can be left handed, right handed, or somewhere in between. Also, handedness – like sexual orientation – is innate; you cannot train a truly right handed person to write with their left hand, any more than you can train a heterosexual to engage in homosexual acts (or vice versa). There are not, so far as I am aware, any laws preventing discrimination against the left handed (although in previous centuries such laws would have been helpful). My only hope is that in years to come, that we will understand that a person’s sexual orientation is no more important, no more a barrier to acceptance, than their handedness.

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