The role of religion will be under the spotlight in the House of Lords today (Monday 25 January), as peers debate amendments to the Equality Bill.
Proposals which are attracting particular attention include an amendment to allow the use of religious elements in same-sex partnership ceremonies. Another amendment would exempt religious organisations from the requirement not to discriminate in employment on grounds of sexuality.
Both amendments have attracted vocal groups of supporters and critics.
The Labour peer, Waheed Alli, who is a gay Muslim, along with a group of peers from all the largest parties, has tabled the proposal to give legal recognition to same-sex partnerships involving religious language or religious premises. No religious element has been allowed in civil partnerships since they were introduced in 2005.
“It must be a matter for churches and religious organisations to decide for themselves but, having decided, the law should not stand in their way” said Alli.
If the proposal becomes law, it would allow same-sex couples to gain legal recognition for commitment ceremonies based on their own faith, a possibility currently denied to them.
His amendment is supported by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Liberal Judaism. They maintain that the measure is a matter of religious liberty.
Meanwhile, socially conservative Christian groups have been active in backing an amendment that would give them an opt-out from equality legislation when it comes to employment. The amendment, proposed by the Tory peer, Detta O’Cathain, would allow them to discriminate on grounds of sexuality.
Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON) say that they are supporting the amendment because the Equality Bill as it stands will not allow employers “to refuse employment to someone even if that person lives a lifestyle contrary to the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics”.
However, a range of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular groups have united to form the Cutting Edge coalition, which is opposing religious opt-outs from equality law.
Members include the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, the Muslim Women’s Network, the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
The BHA’s Andrew Copson said that division on the issues was not between religious and non-religious people but between “people who believe in non-discrimination and equal treatment” and “people who don't”.
The result of the debate on both amendments is expected by late afternoon today (Monday 25 January).
The Accord Coalition (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/), which campaigns for equality in schooling, is also supporting the series of amendments put by Baroness Turner of Camden that aim to redress the unfairness of the current law with regard to the employment of teachers in faith schools.
The coalition's co-ordinator Alex Kennedy commented: "Although it will not be possible to entirely get rid of discrimination against teachers on grounds of their religion in this Bill, we believe that they should at least be able to expect the same safeguards as those working in other organisations with a religious ethos. We expect the amendments to be debated this week—probably on Wednesday, but perhaps as early as Monday. We hope that peers consider the issues seriously and give the amendments the wide support that they deserve."