Church criticises Equality Bill definition

14 May 2009

by Simon Sarmiento

THE Archbishops’ Council is un­happy that the new Equality Bill, which had its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday, has changed the scope of an existing ex­emp­tion in employment law relating to sexual orientation. It has added a definition of the phrase “for the pur­poses of organised religion” without prior consultation.

The new definition says that the exemption applies only when “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).”

Previously there had been no such definition, but it was widely believed that the exemption had been intend­ed to have a very narrow scope, and primarily applied to clergy. The employment tribunal ruling on the case of John Reaney v. the Hereford Diocesan Board of Finance (Com­ment, 27 July, 2007) took a different view.

An Archbishops’ Council spokes­man said: “This definition . . . was inserted in the Bill without our re­ceiv­ing any prior consultation or warning. It represents a substantial narrowing of the exemption.”

Referring to such posts of secretary general of the Arch­bishops’ Council or a diocesan secretary as examples of “senior posts represent­ing the Church”, the spokesman said: “That could mean, for example, that the Church would not be able to decline to employ some­one in a such a role on the grounds that that person’s previous marriage had ended in divorce as a result of his or her own adultery.

“We shall be raising the issue with the Government, and are likely to support the tabling of amendments that would preserve the status quo.”

Other parts of the exemption are preserved. As now, the discrimin­ation must also be shown to be either: a proportionate way of com­plying with the doctrines of the religion; or a proportionate means of avoiding conflict with the strongly held religious convictions of a signif­icant number of the religion’s followers.

When it does apply, however, any of the following six distinct require­ments (combining an earlier list re­lating to sex discrimination with the sexual-orientation clause) can still be imposed: to be of a particular sex; not to be a transsexual person; not to be married or a civil partner; not to be married to, or the civil partner of, a person who has a living former spouse or civil partner; relating to circumstances in which a marriage or civil partnership came to an end; related to sexual orientation.

The Archbishops’ Council’s Mission and Public Affairs Council says that the Church “supports the broad objectives of the Bill”, but it has issued a four-page briefing to MPs that details seven areas of con­cern. One of these is that the law should not be formulated in ways that improperly restrict the freedom of religion, belief, and conscience guaranteed by Article 9 of the Euro­pean Convention on Human Rights.

The briefing says: “There is there­fore potential for conflict when different protected characteristics give rise to claims of discrimination, harassment or victimisation. . . Guidance will be needed on how to resolve such conflicts, without leaving them to the adjudication of the courts, and that guidance must be religiously literate.”

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