Move to erase doubts over Equality Bill

by
14 January 2010

by Simon Sarmiento

THE Government will propose an amendment to clarify the Equality Bill, in order to make it “clear beyond doubt” that the Bill “will still allow churches to hire only male clergy, and will let faith-based charities continue to recruit people of the same faith where this is a require­ment of the job, such as care staff who may also be asked to pray with the people they look after” .

While the Bill was at the Com­mittee stage in the House of Lords this week, the Junior Equalities Minister, Michael Foster MP, an­nounced the amendment after reports that alleged that the Bill could make it unlawful for a Church to require a priest or minister to be male, celibate, and unmarried, or not in a civil partnership.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Archbishops’ Council confirmed this week that it supported the move by the Bishop of Winchester and other peers to delete the whole of paragraph 2(8) in Schedule 9, which defines “the purposes of an organ­ised religion”.

The Council had, he said, “con­sistently made the case to Govern­ment that the deletion of 2(8) is the best way to ensure that the status quo on employment exemptions is maintained — an aspiration the Government has indicated that it shares. The Archbishop of York said as much and explained why, in his speech at Second Reading” (News, 1 January).

In a separate move, the Labour peer Lord Alli has proposed the deletion of paragraph 2(4)(f), which transposes Regulation 7(3) of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orienta­tion) Regulations 2003. This specifies “a requirement related to sexual orientation” as one of the ex­ceptions that can be imposed by an employer “for the purposes of an organised religion”.

Speaking to the Church Times on Tuesday, Lord Alli said that among religious people themselves there was now a wide range of views about homosexuality, and he did not believe that the law should support one particular view. He said: “It is unacceptable to allow people to live in a climate of fear for their jobs, and to use the civil law to support that.” In December, Lord Alli had told the House of Lords: “Persecution is persecution, and we should have done away with the persecution of priests a long time ago.”

A spokesman at Church House indicated on Tuesday that it would be very unlikely that bishops would support that amendment.

Lord Alli, supported by Baroness Noakes, Baroness Neuberger, and Baroness Campbell, has also pro­posed amendments to revise the Civil Partnerships Act, to allow reli­gious venues to be used. This proposal is also supported by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Move­ment, the Metropolitan Community Church, and the campaigning group Stonewall. The Church of England said that it agreed with the Govern­ment’s position in opposing any such changes and retaining parity with civil marriages.

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, has pro­posed an amendment to safeguard the position of clergy who have a conscientious objection to solem­nising a marriage where one of the parties has undergone gender re­assignment. Under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, an opt-out for Anglican clergy in England and Wales was provided, but this amend­ment would exempt all ministers of religion from any obligation to do so.

Another amendment, put forward by the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, to limit protection on grounds of gender reassignment to those who are under medical super­vision was withdrawn on Monday evening, after a debate in committee.

The Minister of State for Equal­ities, Maria Eagle, answering ques­tions in the Commons, confirmed this week that the Government would make a response later this month to the “reasoned opinion” that the European Commission had issued on 20 November (News, 11 December). She declined, however, to place the text of the EU opinion in the House of Commons library, citing the understanding that “infraction correspondence remains confidential”.

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