Bishops win in Equality Bill fight

27 January 2010

by Simon Sarmiento

Victory: Baroness O'Cathain opened the debate PA

Victory: Baroness O'Cathain opened the debate PA

GOVERNMENT attempts to reword the law governing church employment were defeated in the House of Lords on Monday. An amendment to the definition of “the purposes of an organised religion” was defeated. The effect is to remove all differences between the wording of existing legislation and the wording of the new Bill (schedule 9, clause 2).

On the Saturday before the vote, the Bishops of Winchester, Exeter, and Chester had said in a press release that the Government had “produced no convincing case for change”. Instead, the new Bill contained “words which will still create difficulties for churches and religious groups”.

Lady O’Cathain introduced amendments to counter the Government’s alterations. The first two deleted the word “proportionate”. The first was approved by a margin of 38 votes (216-178), and the second was accepted without a roll-call. The House then voted on the Government’s revised definition, which was defeated by 195 votes to 174, a margin of 21. Another amendment deleted the original definition that the House of Commons had voted for in December. This was approved by 177 votes to 172.

The Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London, Winchester, Durham, Chichester, Exeter, Liverpool, and Hereford all voted for Lady O’Cathain and against the Government, as did Lord Carey. Lord Harries of Pentregarth, former Bishop of Oxford, voted against Lady O’Cathain and for the Government’s amendment.

Opening the debate, Lady O’Cathain quoted a Church of England briefing, which queried the proposed restricting of the Church’s exemption to posts “that exist . . . to promote or represent the religion”. She stated: “Although Ministers may say that ‘exists to’ does not mean ‘exists only to’, our legal advice is that that does not reflect the natural meaning of the words. . . Many roles in the Church of England that involve promoting or representing the religion could not simply be described as ‘existing’ for such a purpose.”


Lady Royall responded for the Government: “The small number of posts outside the clergy to which [the wording in] paragraph 2 applies are those that exist to promote or represent an organised religion or to explain the doctrines of the religion. I should like to clarify that this does not mean that the post must involve only one or more of those activities, but one or more of them must be intrinsic to the post. By ‘representing’ the religion, we mean acting or speaking for, and with the authority of, those in leadership within the religion.”

Lady Butler-Sloss, referring to an opinion by James Dingemans QC, argued that introducing the word “proportionate” would cause major problems for churches. A church could still “lose a legal challenge in a particular case if a litigant argued that their action was disproportionate in his or her situation”.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, countering this, said: “Removing proportionality . . . would inevitably lead to complex and costly litigation . . . [which] would require the principle of proportionality to be applied as part of the law of the land, whatever the movers of these amendments and the seven Bishops now present may say. It is the law under European law and it is the law of the land. Proportionality is required whether they like it or not.”

The Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Winchester and Exeter also spoke in the debate. Dr Sentamu said: “Successive legislation over the past 35 years has always recognised the principle that religious organisations need the freedom to impose requirements in relation to belief and conduct that go beyond what a secular employer should be able to require.

“Noble Lords may believe that Roman Catholics should allow priests to be married; they may think that the Church of England should hurry up and allow women to become bishops; they may feel that many churches and other religious organisations are wrong on matters of sexual ethics. But if religious freedom means anything, it must mean that those are matters for the churches and other religious organisations to determine in accordance with their own convictions. They are not matters for the law to impose.”

Orientation. Lord Alli also moved an amend­ment to delete the exemption for religious organisations relating to sexual orientation from the Equality Bill. The Bishop of Win­chester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, ques­tioned Lord Alli’s claim that he “had any evidence of any clergy being put at any kind of risk at al” on grounds of sexual orientation. In reply, Lord Alli cited Dr Jeffrey John, blocked from becoming Bishop of Reading in 2003, and John Reaney, a youth worker in Hereford.

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