Islington has been at the forefront of gay rights campaigning, including the first gay rights demonstration – led by Young Liberal Louis Eakes – on Highbury Fields nearly 40 years ago.
Just last week I was having coffee with a supporter who first joined the Lib Dems because of our pioneering record, championing gay, lesbian and transgender rights when these weren’t the mainstream issues they are today.
The world has changed for the better. This year I was one of thousands dancing through the sunny streets at London Pride. Civil partnerships are a real breakthrough we should all welcome. But homophobic bullying and hate crimes are still a reality. And so is employment discrimination.
Labour likes to trumpet its record on gay rights. But now the EU is threatening the Labour government with a European court order and possible fine, because they are breaching EU employment equality laws, by allowing organisations to discriminate against gay employees on religious grounds.
This is bad news for employees and also for faith groups, who once again get unfairly characterised as prejudiced extremists. The reality is that most faith groups are responsible, liberal employers. Gay rights issues are a divisive issue within faith groups, not between faith groups and the rest of society.
EU law is not about taking the faith out of faith organisations. In a pluralistic society that would be unacceptable. EU employment law rightly allows religious organisations to apply a reasonable requirement based on religion. So faith schools could require some or most teachers to be of that faith. (Although when St Andrew’s CofE school, where I’m a governor, appointed our new head, we followed the ‘Christian dentist’ approach: when you have a toothache, do you go to a good Christian, or a good dentist?)
Faith groups should not be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. And indeed under EU law they are not. But the UK Government is resisting this. Our local Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford has highlighted Labour hypocrisy on this issue. As she says, “It is extraordinary that Harriet Harman’s new Equality Bill does nothing to remedy this continued illegal discrimination, which would have warded off Brussels action. Her bill indeed seems to be more about gestures than real change.”