Attempt to remove ‘religion’ clause in Equality Bill fails

by
09 December 2009

by Simon Sarmiento

AN ATTEMPT to remove a clause in the Equality Bill defining the “pur­poses of organised religion” was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday of last week. The Church of Eng­land had raised objections to the wording (below) when it first ap­peared (News, 20 Novem­ber).

The Bill received its Third Read­ing, when only eight MPs voted against, and it now passes to the House of Lords. A Second Reading debate there is scheduled for next Tuesday.

The amendment, proposed by David Drew, MP for Stroud (Labour), sought to delete the new definition entirely. Speaking in support of Mr Drew, Mark Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean (Con­servative), argued that the phrase “wholly or mainly” was too narrow. Many full-time ordained Christian ministers would be excluded, since only a small proportion of their time was spent leading worship or teaching doc­trine.

When voted upon, the amend­ment was defeated by 170 votes to 314.

On 26 November, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, had also spoken about this clause during the debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech. He said: “I cannot imagine that any Christian would recognise their faith in those descriptions. . . In practice, especially in smaller churches or faith groups, many em­ployees play a multi-tasked role which could fall foul of the re­quirement that their employment wholly or mainly in­volve leading worship.”

During the Commons debate, several MPs referred to a “reasoned opinion” that the European Com­mission had issued to the UK government on 20 November. The Commission stated that the excep­tions in current UK law to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for religious employers are broader than permitted by the EU directive.

The EU Commissioner for Equal Opportunities, Vladimír Špidla, said: “We call on the UK Govern­ment to make the necessary changes to its anti-discrimination legislation as soon as possible so as to fully comply with the EU rules. In this context, we welcome the proposed Equality Bill, and hope that it will come into force quickly.”

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The Government has not yet released the full text of the opinion, but Mr Harper, who had obtained a copy from Brussels, told the Commons that it said: “The UK Gov­ernment has informed the Com­mission that the new Equality Bill currently under discussion before the UK Parliament will amend this aspect of the law, and bring UK law into line with the Directive.”

Two other amendments sought to permit religious care-homes for the elderly and religious adoption agen­cies to restrict their services on the grounds of sexual orientation. They were not adopted.

During the House of Lords de­bate, an amendment is expected to be tabled to allow religious buildings to be used to hold civil partnership ceremonies. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall, a gay-rights group, said: “We are very clear that this is an issue of religious free­dom, and if faiths want to celebrate the cere­monies of two men or two women, it’s not for someone else to say you can’t do that.”

(8) Employment is for the purposes of an organised religion only if the employ­ment wholly or mainly involves —

(a) leading or assisting in the observation of liturgical or ritualistic practices of the religion,

or

(b) promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion (whether to followers of the religion or to others).

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