EHRC criticised for intervening in 'Christian discrimination' cases

By staff writers
14 Jul 2011

The British Humanist Association has expressed "severe concerns" over an application by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to intervene in four cases of alleged discrimination against Christians in the workplace.

These are cases which are being taken to the European Court of Human Rights. The BHA has questioned the motivations behind the intervention but also the priority being given by the EHRC to such cases which it describes as "wholly disproportionate".

The EHRC has applied to intervene in four cases taken to the European Court alleging religious discrimination, all four of which have been lost in the English tribunals and courts which have heard them.

The cases are that of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who refused to fulfil her duties because of her "orthodox Christian beliefs" opposing same-sex partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, who refused to treat gay couples equally with straight ones in his job as a counsellor at Relate.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also applied to intervene in the case of Nadia Eweida, who has repeatedly lost her claims of religious discrimination against her employer British Airways, and of Shirley Chaplin, who claimed that uniform codes violated her human rights as a Christian.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: "All reasonable people will agree both that equality law in this area must be clear and also that there is scope in a secular democracy for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs when that accommodation does not affect the rights and freedoms of others.

"But it is one thing to make the case for reasonable accommodation in matters such as religious holidays, and quite another if the accommodation sought is to allow the believer to discriminate against others in the provision of a service," he continued.

"In the case of Lillian Ladele, her religious objection to providing civil partnerships went against her obligation as a registrar to provide a service to which gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right. Rather than using these cases to argue for accommodation, we look to the EHRC to argue that the judgments of the High Court be upheld and to protect the rights of service users not to be discriminated against on the arbitrary convictions of someone who does not wish to treat them equally."

Mr Copson also expressed the regret of the BHA that the EHRC had once again shown willingness to take action on religious matters while constantly neglecting the rights of the non-religious.

He commented: "In spite of our own work on the government steering group that first established it, ever since the Equality and Human Rights Commission opened for business our attempts to work with it have run aground on the constant priority it gives to religion. The EHRC has covered itself with shame on 'religion or belief' issues since it began, and this latest action is wholly disproportionate."

"When a third of our state schools have the capacity to discriminate against staff and pupils because they are of the wrong or no religion, when public services are being contracted to religious groups with huge opt outs from equality and human rights law, and when community cohesion in this country is being threatened by the misguided emphasis given to religion in public policy, the idea that the most pressing issue on which our equality commission should spend its public money is alleged discrimination against Christians wanting to wear religious symbols is ridiculous," said Mr Copson.

The British Humanist Association has an ongoing complaint lodged with the Equality and Human Rights Commission over recent comments by its chair, Trevor Phillips ,in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph.

There he declared that the EHRC’s "business is defending the believer". The first response by the EHRC to the complaint and request for the remedy of an apology was that Mr Phillips "[stood] by" his comments and no apology would be made. The BHA is appealing that decision.

Ironically, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has previously been criticised by hardline Christian campaigners who maintain that their conservative beliefs should have priority over the rights and views of others in the public square.

[Ekk/3]

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