The House of Lords this month debates the Equality Bill, a major piece of legislation which aims to improve and simplify laws on discrimination and equal treatment.
Although the Bill contains many measures that will be broadly welcomed by those working for fair treatment, the Accord Coalition - which works for inclusive, community schooling - has highlighted what it says are "very serious concerns" about the exemptions the Bill contains for faith schools.
Foremost among these, points out the Coalition (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/), is that it allows fully or mainly state-funded faith schools to discriminate far more in their terms of employment than private businesses or charities with a religious ethos.
Baroness Turner of Camden has tabled two amendments with the aim of addressing this situation, which are receiving the backing of equalities campaigners.
By removing the exemptions it will be possible to make sure that any selection of teachers on grounds of religion or belief has to be justified in the context of the particular role. This would mean give teachers in faith schools the same protections against religious discrimination as other employees in organisations with a religious character, says Accord - whose founding members include the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the British Humanist Association (BHA).
A spokesperson said: "In principle, Accord is opposed to all discrimination against staff in state funded schools on the grounds of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. However, we believe that many people would be particularly horrified to discover the fact that teachers in state funded schools have fewer rights than those working in religious charities when it comes to religious discrimination."
Whereas almost all other employers have to show that discrimination is an “occupational requirement” of a particular post, faith schools can impose a blanket requirement that all teachers be co-religionists, or that believers are “preferred”.
This provision extends not only to recruitment, but to pay and promotion – meaning that teachers may see their career options limited because of their religious beliefs, or lack of them.
Worse still, any teacher at a voluntary aided faith school — which are the majority of state-funded religious schools — can be dismissed for “conduct…incompatible with the precepts, or with the upholding of the tenets of the religion” of the school.
Also on Ekklesia: Equality and employment in faith schools: An Accord Equality Bill Briefing for the House of Lords Committee Stage, January 2010 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10976