An unholy row has erupted between the government and religious leaders, who argue that the Equality Bill as it stands would ban them from turning away gay or lesbian job applicants on the grounds of their sexual orientation, even if their faith holds same-sex relationships to be sinful.
At the centre of the debate is the equality duty on public bodies – a key tenet of the proposed Bill, which is currently going through parliament. The duty will require a range of public bodies – from local authorities and police forces to schools and faith groups – to consider the needs of diverse groups in the community when designing and delivering public services. It also pulls together the nine separate strands of current anti-discrimination law, in areas such as race, sex, age and sexual orientation, which requires public bodies not to discriminate against job applicants and employees.
Under existing anti-discrimination legislation, any roles deemed to be necessary “for the purposes of an organised religion” are excluded from gay rights protection.
But the Equality Bill seeks to clarify this clause and defines this as applying only to those who lead the liturgy or spend the majority of the time teaching doctrine – in essence only ministers, bishops and their counterparts in other faiths. This means job roles such as administrative staff, youth workers, cleaners and teachers employed by religious groups will not be exempt.
Deputy equalities minister Maria Eagle outlined this aspect of the new legislation at the Faith, Homophobia, Transphobia and Human Rights conference, held in London in May.
In a speech to delegates, she said: “The circumstances in which religious institutions can practice anything less than full equality are few and far between. While the state would not intervene in narrowly ritual or doctrinal matters within faith groups, these communities cannot claim that everything they run is outside the scope of anti-discrimination law.”
When contacted, a Government Equalities Office spokesman had prepared a statement by way of clarification: “Churches, synagogues, mosques and others will continue to have the freedom to choose who they employ in jobs which promote their religion. But where they provide services to the public, they will have to treat everyone fairly.”
Some faith leaders argue this stance, rather than simply clarifying current legislation, represents a tightening of the law in this area and an infringement of religious freedoms.
Richard Kornicki, member of staff of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, argued this point at a House of Commons committee hearing on the Equality Bill held in June.
Referring to the fact that youth workers are not exempt from the legislation, he said the Bill as it stands represents a misunderstanding of how religion works. Youth work, he said, “is not simply an activity that takes place once a week in a particular place; it is about the whole of life.e_SDRq
Speaking at the same hearing, William Fittall, the secretary-general of the General Synod of the Church of England, made a case for “judicious amendments” to the Bill that strike a better balance between the beliefs of many Christians and protection for gay and lesbian staff in the workplace. “At the end of the day, we want equality. We also want to preserve religious liberty,” he said.
But at gay rights pressure group Stonewall, spokesman Jonathan Finney says the Equality Bill does not narrow the existing exemption given to faith groups, but instead simply clarifies the law as it is at present. He says the current law – the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 – does not give religious groups blanket exemptions when it comes to recruitment and that clarification is required because there have been examples of discrimination against gay workers in faith organisations in recent years.
Indeed, a search through the Hansard archives confirms that just how far it was intended for the exemption to reach was debated in the Lords in June 2003. At the time, Lord Sainsbury of Turville argued: “It would be very difficult for a church to argue that a requirement related to sexual orientation applied to a post of cleaner, gardener or secretary. Religious doctrine rarely has much to say about posts such as those.”
And of course, across the different faiths there is a wide breadth of opinion on this issue, including a substantial proportion of religious leaders who do not oppose the recruitment of gay or lesbian staff for support roles and even ministerial positions. In May, for example, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted by 326 to 267 to uphold the decision to appoint a gay minister to a church in Aberdeen.
Among the various strands of Judaism in the UK there seems to be an acceptance that an applicant’s sexuality should have no bearing on support positions around a synagogue that are not related to the preaching of doctrine.
At last month’s Commons hearing, Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the test as to whether a particular position should be exempt should be whether there was a “genuine occupational requirement”.
And while a rabbi or minister would not typically expound support for same-sex relationships, according to Eli Kienwald, chief executive of the Federation of Synagogues, when it comes to support roles, he says his members follow equality laws to the letter at job interviews. “I don’t see it as a problem if a member of the community wants to live with somebody of the same sex. It would only be a problem if they asked for the rabbi’s approval or tried to implement their belief on the organisation,” he says.
As you’d imagine, a more broad-minded stance comes from the Liberal Jewish Synagogue – a small group at the permissive end of the UK’s Jewish community. According to executive director Michael Burman, the organisation counts both a gay rabbi and female rabbi among its number. “And unless it is vitally important for a particular position, people who work in our synagogues don’t even have to be Jewish,” he says.
At the Islamic Society for Britain, it is accepted that non-preaching roles should be encompassed by anti-discrimination legislation. A spokesman for the organisation said that while Islam prohibits same-sex relationships, this is a separate issue to whether the Equality Bill should contain exemptions for faith groups employing people in same sex relationships.
He adds: “If we start prying into people’s private lives at job interviews we are opening a can of worms. We will soon want to know if they drink or use drugs etc.”
During the Commons committee hearing, Maleiha Malik, from Muslim Women’s Network, went as far as to call for existing exemptions to be narrowed further, because, she said, current laws give “too much power to organised religions to police their internal members”.
But the voices calling for faith groups to have ultimate sway over who they choose to recruit are loud and unrelenting, and it remains to be seen what amendments to the Equality Bill, if any, will emerge as a result of the recent Commons committee hearings.
Particularly outspoken on the issue is Andrea Williams, a barrister and director of the Christian Legal Centre, a Christian rights group, who says the matter is especially important at a time when Christian beliefs are under threat in many areas.
She says: “In recent months we have seen a nurse sacked for offering to pray for a patient and a teacher suspended because he dare question the way homosexuality was portrayed in his school. It’s only when people hear of cases like these that they start to realise what the implications of changes to law could mean.”
But what if the current proposals in the Equality Bill go forward unamended and become legislation. Are we likely to see some faith groups openly disobey the new directive? “I foresee some organisations will be unable in their conscience to comply with this law,” says Williams.
Views on the Equality Bill and exemptions for faith groups
Spokesman, Islamic Society for Britain
“We’ve reached a point in society where there is some sort of understanding and sensitivity around these issues [gay rights]. To argue that church groups should be exempt in this way is seriously flawed.”
Eli Kienwald, chief executive, Federation of Synagogues
“The Jewish religion does not hound people who believe in same-sex relationships. It doesn’t say that it is permitted but the sin is between man and the almighty. Men have no right to pass judgement.”
Andrea Williams, director, Christ Legal Centre
“It is legitimate for a Christian organisation to ask applicants what their views are [on relationships] at interview. If you codify the censorship of people living out an orthodox belief it is the start of a closed society.”
Christian Institute briefing document on the Equality Bill
“At the moment, if there is any conflict between atheism and Christianity, atheism seems to win out. Similarly, there is a tendency for gay rights to trump religious rights.”