BY ANABEL INGE
A LAST-DITCH attempt to prevent highly controversial gay rights legislation from becoming law has failed.
After a three-hour debate in the House of Lords the Sexual Orientation Regulations were passed by 168 votes to 122 a majority of 46 votes despite fierce opposition led by Tory peer Baroness O'Cathain.
She called the legislation "seriously flawed" and said "this circumscribing of people's fundamental freedoms is outrageous". She warned peers that the regulations could lead to litigation against schools over what is taught in the classroom.
"The Government has taken the view that gay rights trump religious rights," she said.
The legislation aims to end discrimination against homosexuals in the provision of goods and services. The Lords vote means the laws will come into force in England, Wales and Scotland on April 30.
The regulations will, oblige the 13 Catholic adoption agencies in Britain to place children with same-sex couples after the end of 2008. Church teaching forbids this and the bishops have said the agencies may have to shut as a result.
Baroness Andrews, speaking for the Government maintained that the regulations did not affect fundamental freedoms. 'They maintain the longstanding liberty enjoyed by all faiths to observe and practise their faith," she said. "They do not provide special treatment for any group in society, but they provide protection from discrimination for individuals. when accessing basic goods and services."
She dismissed the idea that schools could be vulnerable. Compliance with existing guidelines on the teaching of sex and relationships in schools would. she said, protect them from litigation.
"This has been a long journey to us recognising the rights of people irrespective of sexual orientation." she said. "It is a historic step forward towards dignity, respect and fairness for all."
Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a member of Opus Dei,
applauded the result, saying: "This is a major step forward in ensuring dignity, respect and fairness for all. These measures will help tackle the practical barriers and real, everyday problems faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
"It cannot be right in a decent. tolerant society that a shopkeeper or restaurant can refuse to serve a customer because they are gay. It cannot be right for a school to discriminate against a child because of their parents' sexuality or not to take homophobic bullying as seriously as they should."
Earlier Tony Blair was accused during Prime Minister's questions of treating the House of Commons with "contempt" with regard to the regulations. William Cash, a Tory backbencher and a Catholic, asked the Prime Minister: "Why, in relation to the question of unequal treatment, he has given those who stand for gay rights preference over those who are concerned with conscience, family and religion?"
Mr Blair replied that the issue had seen a full public debate and that "we have followed exactly the procedure that we said we would follow in relation to the regulations," He said that "if we are sensible" it was still possible to find a way of preventing discrimination against gay people, while allowing Catholic adoption agencies to carry on doing the excellent work that they do.
"It is a difficult balance to strike, but I believe that we have struck the right balance, and I think that most sensible people would agree with it," he said.
Meanwhile. an aide to Labour MP Man Simpson apologised for a letter to a constituent who complained about the regulations.
Paul May wrote: "You disgust me. You are so totally and utterly out of touch with the real world that it is no surprise to me the Christian faith is fizzling out to nothing in the United Kingdom.
"Perhaps when we have managed to turn all our children gay the problem of religious bigotry affecting our laws will no longer be an issue."