Human rights campaigners, trades unions and several religious groups have reacted with dismay to a House of Lords vote on the Equality Bill. Peers narrowly voted for amendments that will allow religious organisations greater exemptions from anti-discrimination law in matters of employment.
Critics say that this will weaken protection for those already on the staff of religious groups, as well as for job applicants. It is as yet unclear how the government will respond to the vote.
Ministers insisted that the Bill as it stood would allow faith groups to make exemptions for those, such as clergy, who represent a religion as a core part of their work. It would also allow them to require other job applicants to share their general ethos.
But certain socially conservative pressure groups insisted that this did not go far enough. The Tory peer, Detta O'Cathain, yesterday (25 January) proposed amendments to give greater exemptions to faith groups, saying that “religious liberty is now at stake”.
She insisted that religious groups should be able to specify the beliefs and lifestyle of staff generally, not only those who carry out a representative role. She said that the guidelines on which roles are "representative" are not clear.
Her amendments were passed by narrow margins, the last by only five votes.
Much of the discussion concerned religious organisations not wishing to employ people whose sexual ethics they do not share. There has been a particular focus on the reluctance of some Christian groups to employ gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, even those who are Christians.
The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, predicted that “a barrage of endless, endless tribunals” would result from the Equality Bill as it stood.
However, the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, Anthony Lester said that similar predictions had been made about the effect of the Human Rights Act on faith groups, but that they had turned out to be mistaken.
The Labour peer, Thomas Graham, made a similar point about the strength of the opposition shown by certain Christian groups to the repeal of Section 28, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.
“The issues that were so big then seem to have faded” he said.
Despite their success, the amendments’ promoters are likely to be embarrassed by the extreme statements made by some of their supporters. A Tory peer, Peter Pilkington, suggested that there had been greater religious liberty in the early nineteenth century than there would be if the Equality Bill were passed.
“Dictators always strangled these freedoms,” he said, “And this, in a funny way, is what we’re doing now, in the name of ideology”.
After the vote, Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), who have campaigned strongly for the amendments, encouraged Christians to “praise God” for the result.
“The results show what can happen when Christians pray and take action,” said CCFON’s Andrea Minichiello Williams, “Let us be encouraged that even in an increasingly secular society, the voice of the Church can still be heard.”
However, others point out that many Christians do not share her views. The Cutting Edge coalition, launched to oppose opt-outs from the equality legislation, includes Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular groups.
"This vote will be disappointing for many people, of various faiths and of none, who want to see the staff of religious organisations enjoying the same legal protection as other workers” said Symon Hill, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.
He added, "The amendments' supporters have tended to give the impression that Christians as a whole are behind them. However, it is important that the media and policy analysts acknowledge the presence of Christians on all sides of this debate.”
Hill encouraged the government to challenge and reverse the amendment, saying: “It would be helpful for them to bear in mind the part played by bishops and other unelected peers, who do not in fact represent the interests of all religious people - particularly those who could now be excluded from employment with religious organisations."