Christian groups voice concerns over Equality Bill

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament

 The Equality Bill is due for its Second Reading in the House of Lords today, 15 December, where it will be debated. As the Bill has progressed through Parliament churches of all denominations have expressed unease at some of the definitions in the Bill.

The Bill brings together existing discrimination law and extends it to new ‘protected characteristics’. It covers discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

In a briefing sent to MPs the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales welcomed the extension of protection to religious believers and measures to combat unjust discrimination against human beings, each of whom is made in the image of God.

However, it noted: "that the Bill raises some serious difficulties which Parliament needs to address if this legislation is to work, and in particular if it is to provide clarity on how problems should be resolved when different rights overlap or conflict."

This summer the bishops were working with the Government Equalities Office and Parliamentarians "to improve the clarity of the Bill and to limit the danger of new provisions having the effect of curtailing the exercise of the religious freedom guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights."

To read the Bishops Conference documents on the Bill see:

This week, the Lawyers Christian Fellowship has pointed out threats to Christian life in the Bill. In a statement it says: "While Christians believe in the innate worth of every human being, the Bill undermines basic Christian freedoms to adhere to biblical values in the area of employment. The Bill will affect Churches, who will not be able to discriminate on the basis of sexual practice that contravenes biblical values or gender reassignment when employing staff. Only roles that wholly or mainly involve, promoting or teaching religion or leading worship services will be exempt from the provisions of the Government’s Equality Bill. Far from simplifying the law, which the Government promised the Equality Bill would do, the Bill introduces more complex requirements even above and beyond those already within the existing law and the explanatory notes to the Bill state that “the specific exception applies to a very narrow range of circumstances”.

During the Report Stage in the House of Commons, John Mason, MP said: "Let us consider the definition: “wholly or mainly involves...leading or assisting...liturgical or ritualistic practices...or...promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion”.

"Even a full-time priest, minister or pastor would not 'mainly' be doing that, because much of their time is spent visiting the sick and perhaps with funerals and so on. In fact, therefore, the definition could exclude everybody.

Mark Harper, MP, Shadow Minister (Disabled People), Work and Pensions, explained this in more detail and added that:  “If the definition does not even include people who lead worship in their churches, it seems to me that it is a faulty one.”

The LCF said: "The Bill’s intention was to ensure that posts such as Church Cleaner or Accountant to the Church would not be covered by the exception, but a Minister or Priest would be. There are other posts that this change would affect, including those which may have a pastoral or representative role such as a youth worker.

"The current Bill’s wording means that if passed, it would no longer be lawful to require a Minister/Vicar/Priest to be male, unmarried, not in a civil partnership, not homosexual or not transsexual, since virtually no such person would be able to show that their time was 'wholly or mainly' spent either leading liturgy or promoting or explaining the doctrines of the religion.

The Equality Bill is due for its Second Reading in the House of Lords today, when it will be debated. It is provisionally timetabled for Committee Stage on 11 and 13 January 2010, but further days may be announced for Committee Stage. It is at Committee Stage and Report Stage that amendments to the Bill can be considered and voted upon.

The Lawyers Christian Fellowship is appealing for readers to write  to Peers to ask them to support amendments to the Equality Bill that will maintain churches’ freedom to recruit suitable people to key positions in churches.

The LCF says: "We are also concerned that although the explanatory notes say that the current law regarding the freedom of Christian organisations to employ only Christians has not changed, the example given of how the new provisions would operate is arguably much more restrictive than the current law. For that reason we would like you to request that during debate in the House of Lords, Peers ask the Government to remove this example from the explanatory notes."

They conclude: "The Equality Bill is a direct assault on the Church’s freedom to employ people who are committed to living with Christian integrity according to the Bible. It also makes it more difficult for Christian organisations to employ Christians and reject applicants who do not share our faith, or who refuse to live according to the Bible’s teaching."

For more information see:

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