The chair of Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Trevor Phillips, has been asked to apologise to non-religious people for "biased" comments he made in a recent interview.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) has described Mr Phillips’ comments as "divisive and sectarian". Legally, the EHRC’s duties apply equally to the non-religious and religious. But the BHA says this is widely overlooked.
Trevor Phillips is reported to have stated: "Our business is defending the believer. The law we're here to implement recognises that religious identity is an essential part of this society. It's an essential element of being a fulfilled human being."
He also made "a number of acerbic comments" about those who are critical of religious beliefs, suggesting, without supplying any evidence, that such people wanted "to drive religion underground."
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson, commented: "Trevor Phillips is the head of a commission which is responsible for the legal rights and interests not just of religious people but of non-religious people too. When he suggests that having religious belief is essential in order to be fulfilled as a human being, he is belittling them."
Mr Copson continued: "If [the EHRC chief] made such divisive comments on grounds of race, saying 'it's my job to stand up for white people', he would rightly be excoriated. But somehow the fashionable sentiment that religion is good and non-religious people are hectoring and oppressive – when in fact the opposite is often the case – makes him think that this particular sort of bigotry is okay. It isn't."
The British Humanist Association CEO says: "Mr Phillips states that the Commission’s role is in 'defending the believer' and that his 'real worry' is unfair treatment of religious people. He should tell that to the non-religious parent who can't get their child into the local school while Christian neighbour can, or the child expected to worship in school against his or her wishes, or the employee refused promotion by a religious employer contracted to provide a public service on behalf of the state because he or she doesn’t believe in god.
"With ill-informed remarks like these coming from the head of the Commission, non-religious people must have diminishing confidence that it is concerned with or even understands their interests."
The BHA has lodged a complaint against EHRC chair Phillips through the Commission’s official complaints channel, in particular asking for an apology from for misrepresenting his role and the role of the Commission.
The BHA is calling for the training of Commissioners, including Mr Phillips, so they will be aware of their statutory duties in relation to the protection of people against discrimination, whatever their beliefs.
Such comments as Mr Phillips’ appear to condemn criticism of religions, running counter to the EHRC’s responsibilities to protect the human right to freedom of speech, says the BHA - which stresses that it seeks to work positively with religious as well as non-religious groups in ensuring a level playing-field for all in public life.