Humanists regret that religion or belief is 'largely absent' from equalities strategy

By staff writers
November 18, 2010

Mention of religion and belief is largely absent from the government’s announcements on its new equalities strategy, humanists are saying.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) was responding to the announcement of the Coalition's plans by Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, on 17 November 2010.

There is anger among many campaigners that former minister Harriet Harman's provisions for action on social and economic class have - perhaps unsurprisingly - been dropped by the Conservatives, backed by the Liberal Democrats.

But the BHA's main concern is that "the conspicuous absence of equalities policy on religion or belief" could have a detrimental impact on equality and anti-discrimination across the board.

Earlier this month, the Secretary of State confirmed that the Government Equalities Office (GEO) would not be doing any work on the equalities area of religion or belief, which includes non-religious beliefs.

The Minister was responding to a question in a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Equalities.

The BHA's Head of Public Affairs, Naomi Phillips, commented: "The government’s new vision for equality seems to be firmly rooted in promoting equality of individuals, with a stated intention to move away from seeing and treating people simply on the basis of one marker of identity, such as religion.

"This could be positive and tackle in part the worrying situation whereby people are encouraged to identify with a faith group simply to be recognised, consulted or included in policy initiatives. We will be looking to see where religious representatives are given privileged status and treatment by government solely on the basis of religious identity, and hold the government to task against its new strategy.

"However, the Secretary of State also emphasised that public services would be handed over to communities and we know from experience that often means contracting to religious groups, which are permitted by law to discriminate in services and employment on religious grounds.

"If religious groups are to take control of the provision of public services particularly at local level, that poses serious risks of increased discrimination, not only against non-religious people but women and vulnerable minorities within faith communities, such as gay people.

"The fact is, if religion or belief really has been excised from the GEO’s portfolio, and all related issues are to be dealt with by other government departments and placed firmly in the context of faith communities rather than equalities, then that could be very detrimental to wider efforts to forward equality across the board," said the British Humanist Association spokesperson.

The BHA seeks to unite ethical non-religious opinion and opposes the privileging of institutional religion, but also cooperates with religious groups and individuals on matters of common concern.

It points out that the government has initiated a whole series of conversations with Christian and other faith groups, but still pays little attention to the large number of people in Britain whose lives are not guided by religious convictions.


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