THE parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) disagreed strongly with the Archbishops’ Council over a proposal to modify the Equality Bill, it emerged this week. The Bill awaits the Report stage before its Third Reading in the House of Commons.
The Council had suggested that in one clause that provided an exception for “the purposes of an organised religion”, a proposed definition of those purposes should be replaced by an explicit link to a hitherto separate exception.
The first exception allows some discrimination on the basis of gender, marital status, the circumstances of a divorce, being a transsexual, or “a requirement related to sexual orientation”. But this applies only when the employment is “for the purposes of an organised religion”. The second exception permits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief by any organisation “with an ethos based on religion or belief”.
The Council had written: “It seems to us both logical and necessary that in the case of a post in respect of which it is legitimate to impose a requirement that the holder be of a particular religion, it should equally be possible to impose a requirement that the holder of the post should not engage in conduct contrary to the tenets of that religion.
“Indeed it is only in respect of posts that are subject to a requirement to be of a particular religion or belief that the Church would ever wish to impose any of the [other] requirements listed. . . It is our view that the scope of the exception . . . should simply be expressed to apply to posts in respect of which a requirement to be of a particular religion was (lawfully) applied. . .”
The JCHR wrote in its Scrutiny Report, published this week: “We consider that substantial grounds exist for doubting whether the ‘religious ethos’ exception . . . permits organisations with a religious ethos to impose wide-ranging requirements on employees to adhere to religious doctrine in their lifestyles and personal relationships, by, for example, requiring employees to manifest their religious beliefs by refraining from homosexual acts.
“We agree with the Government that it is ‘very difficult to see how, in practice, beliefs in lifestyles or personal relationships could consti-tute a religious belief which is a requirement for a job, other than ministers of religion’ (which is covered by a different exception). This should put beyond doubt the position that the [religion or belief] exemption cannot be used to discriminate on the basis of sexual conduct linked to sexual orientation. We support this view and recommend that this be made clear in the Bill.”
The Council had earlier voiced its concern about the new definition (News, 15 May and 12 June). This limits the exception to those whose roles are “(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).”
A Church House spokesman said this week: “Our argument was that it does not make sense to say that you can require the holders of certain posts to be of a particular religion, but that you can’t go on to say that their personal conduct must not be contrary to the teaching of that religion.”
The Council’s proposal was included in three memoranda sent in June to the JCHR. The other main points of concern to the Archbishops’ Council were that: harassment on the grounds of Religion or Belief and Sexual Orientation should remain excluded from the Bill, and that existing (wider) exceptions relating to employment in religious schools should remain unchanged.
The Council again repeated its previously voiced concern about a “trend towards regarding religion and belief as deserving of a lesser priority in discrimination legislation than the other strands”.