UK retreat over employment equality for churches

From The Times, by Rosemary Bennett and Ruth Gledhill

Harriet Harman has backed away from a confrontation with religious leaders over who they can employ, making clear that she will not force contentious amendments to the Equality Bill through Parliament.

Ministers were astonished on Monday when the Pope said that the Bill violated “natural justice” and urged bishops to fight it. But that attack, along with the strength of opposition in the Lords and the limited time left to get Bills passed before the election, has sapped the Government’s enthusiasm to continue the fight.

Ms Harman, the Equalities Minister, has been engaged in a long dispute with churches and religious organisations over their exemption from anti-discrimination employment law, and how it affects “non-religious” posts.

The dispute led to a government defeat on a key amendment to the Bill last week in the Lords, but it was expected that Ms Harman would reintroduce the measure, or one similar.

The amendment clarified rather than changed existing law, stating that churches were exempt from discrimination legislation when appointing priests and other “religious” posts, but that they must comply with its terms for “non-religious” jobs, such as youth workers or accountants.

Although that was enshrined in law in 2003, it has been ignored by many organisations, which have interpreted the exemption to cover all posts. Ms Harman felt that religious groups should be reminded they were breaking the law, and tabled an amendment making it clear that there was a distinction between religious and lay jobs. But she said last night that she would not bring back the amendment when the Bill returned to the Commons.

“We have never insisted on nondiscrimination legislation applying to religious jobs, such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi,” she said.

“Religious organisations can decide themselves how to do that. However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organisations must comply with the law. We thought that it would be helpful for everyone involved to clarify the law, and that is what the amendment … aimed to do. That amendment was rejected, so the law remains as it was.”

Although Ms Harman made no mention of the Pope’s visit to Britain this year, it is understood that the Government did not want the dispute to overshadow preparations.

Sources close to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster indicated that problems remained, saying that the Pope’s criticism went beyond the Equality Bill, and was a broader attack on all recent legislation, which he believes has affected religious freedoms. During an ad limina — a five-yearly visit to Rome — the 35 Catholic bishops from England and Wales told the Pope of their concern that Catholic adoption agencies had had to close or sever their links with the Church because of rules forcing agencies not to discriminate against gay couples.

The Pope’s position has received support in the Church of England and other faith groups. Writing in The Times today, Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, says: “There are times when human rights become human wrongs … a political ideology, relentlessly trampling down everything in their path. This is happening increasingly in Britain, and it is why the Pope’s protest against the Equality Bill … should be taken seriously.”

But Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, a gay rights group, warned churches that it would support discrimination claims if gay people were prevented from taking up lay posts. “If any church dismisses someone from a non-liturgical role, such as a youth worker or a press officer, we will support their case.”