The following statement on the draft EU Equal Treatment directive was issued this week by the Church of England, the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and the Free Churches of England and Wales. It is in response to the DfEE consultation, and is signed by the Rt Rev Alan Chesters, Anglican Bishop of Blackburn, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, and the Rev Geoffrey Roper, General Secretary of the Free Churches' Council. Churches and other faith communities strongly support the pursuit of equal treatment for all people. The dignity of the individual human being lies at the heart of the belief of all the great world faiths, each individual being precious in the eyes of God. We therefore broadly welcome the aims of the draft EU Equal Treatment Directive. In particular we welcome the intention to ensure equal treatment irrespective of religion or belief. We also welcome the intention to prevent unjustifiable discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in itself. As Section 13 of the Human Rights Act 1998 makes clear, particular regard must be had to the exercise by a religious organisation of the Convention Right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This is a fundamental human right in itself and must therefore be set alongside other human rights. For instance, in the case of schools, the balance is between the right of a well-qualified teacher to seek employment in any school, and the right of a voluntary-aided Church - or indeed Muslim, Jewish or Sikh - school to employ teaching staff who they believe would strengthen rather than weaken the religious ethos of their school. The religious ethos of the school is set not solely by what is taught in religious education lessons, but by the whole style and belief of the school community. Every teacher helps to strengthen or weaken that, not only by their belief but also by their behaviour. The same principles would apply to any other form of religious organisation. We therefore welcome the government's assurance, given by Baroness Blackstone in the House of Lords and by David Blunkett personally to us, that they will press for amendments to the directive 'to ensure that there is no question of religious organisations being forced to employ people who are not members of the relevant faith, because that would dilute the maintenance of a distinctive religious ethos'. We welcome this assurance in relation to all religious organisations, whether educational, welfare or health related. In particular, we share the government's concern to ensure that the employment directive will permit Section 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to be maintained. The government have actively pursued these aims and we believe the governments of other European states will support them. Finally we accept the government's assurance that they will not agree to the proposals unless they achieve a satisfactory outcome.
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