Will the C of E position on equality hold water?

By Simon Sarmiento
10 Feb 2010

Speaking to the General Synod on 9 February 2010, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave the clearest recent account yet of where the Church of England stands on the religious exemptions in the Equality Bill. This is the same position that it took back in 2003.

Referring to the recent House of Lords debate, he said: "What they were contesting was a relatively small but extremely significant point of detail, which was whether government had the right to tell religious bodies which of the tasks for which they might employ people required and which did not require some level of compliance with the public teaching of the church about behaviour."

He continued: "[the churches] will argue stubbornly for the freedom on their side to settle for themselves – not at the government's command – how they define the jobs people do publicly on their behalf as specific communities of belief or interest."

And there you have it. Nothing less than self-determination will do. What the church is against is not any particular definition of the scope of that exemption, but the very concept of putting any limiting definition into the law. They want to be able to decide for themselves exactly which jobs it can be applied to.

The Government Equalities Office and its predecessor organisations have spent many hours since 2003 listening to the pleas of the churches. No wonder that they have not been able to agree.

In June 2009, William Fittall, Secretary-General of the Church of England General Synod, told the public bill committee in the House of Commons: "We are not seeking carte blanche, but if a religious organisation is employing someone in a role for which you have to be a member of that faith, it is reasonable that restrictions – whether they be on marital history or whatever – can be part of the requirements."

Carte blanche means having free rein to choose whatever course of action you want.

But back in January 2003, the Church of England was openly asking for just that, when it responded to the DTI consultation by proposing the following wording: "Nothing in … these regulations shall render unlawful anything done for the purposes or in connection with an organised religion so as to comply with the doctrines of the religion or avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of a significant number of its followers."

And again in August 2003, Mr Fittall sent a letter to the joint committee on statutory instruments which said: "Faith groups must not only be allowed to reach their own views on matters of sexual ethics but also have a broad measure of freedom to determine the extent to which those who represent and serve them are required to abide by their teaching."

It was Lord Lester who said that by their action of voting for Baroness O'Cathain's amendments the Lords Spiritual had "managed to vote as turkeys for Christmas … by removing the new and magnanimous protection that they were given". To which the Archbishop of York replied: "We have voted not for Christmas but for the tranquillity and magnanimity that we found in the regulations that were passed a long time ago."

That would be the same regulations about which the bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, had said in May 2003: "Nevertheless we retain significant concerns over the amount of litigation which the regulations are likely to generate and regret that the government has not introduced as much clarity in them as we had sought. The proper legal protection of individual rights, which we support, needs to be consistent with the rights of the churches and other faith groups to religious freedom. That must include the ability to set our own requirements about belief and conduct in respect of those who serve and represent us. We shall be closely monitoring the implementation of the regulations."

It's quite clear that neither a Labour nor a Conservative government is going to give the churches such freedom. And more significantly, neither will the courts, not least because the European employment directive will not allow them to do so.

As the Church Times editorialised two weeks ago, by rejecting Baroness Royall's offer of a revised definition, the bishops have created "every prospect of a long and expensive test case, probably involving the C of E, to check the legality of continued discrimination against lay people in positions of responsibility".

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(c) Simon Sarmiento is a founder of, and leading contributor to, the Thinking Anglicans website (http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/). He also writes for the Church Times and national newspapers. He is a leading commenter on Anglican affairs.

This article is adapted with kind acknowledgments to one that appeared on Guardian Comment-is-Free. http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/simon-sarmiento

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