The preservation of religious freedom, including the right to manifest religious belief in all its diversity, remains a cornerstone of an open, liberal and tolerant society, the C of E Archbishops’ Council has stated in its response to proposals for a Single Equality Bill.
“We have been concerned at what has seemed in some recent debates to be a trend towards regarding religion and belief as deserving of a lesser priority in discrimination legislation than the other strands where the law seeks to bring protection,” the Council says in its response to Department for Communities and Local Government’s discrimination law review.
However secular and equality campaigners have suggested, on the contrary, that religious groups are frequently over-represented in both public institutions and debates. They have welcomed the government's refusal to give in to Catholic and Anglican pressure on gay adoptions, pointing out that 'diversity of belief' should not be an excuse for discriminatory behaviour.
According to the Church of England response, Framework for Fairness, the DCLG’s consultation paper, says relatively little about the difficult and crucial area of conflicting rights and how a proper balance should be struck, the response notes.
“The argument appears to be that, because religion and belief is susceptible of personal choice in a way that is not the same in relation to other strands, that means that religion and belief should be subordinate to those other strands when they come into conflict. We think that this is a false analysis,” the Council says.
“Nor,” says the Council, “is religious equality achieved by the elimination of expressions of religious belief in public institutions such as schools or local authorities. This does not amount to, or achieve, equal respect for different religious groups and those of no religion; rather it amounts to an enforced secularism that fails to respect religious belief at all.”
The response claims that the Church of England has been consistent in its support for the use of the law to combat the manifestations of prejudice and to promote equality and fairness since the introduction of the first anti-discrimination legislation more than forty years ago.
But critics say that the Church has used its unelected representatives in the House of Lords and its lobbying muscle elsewhere to oppose or seek to water down equalities legislation and regulations, particularly in relation to sexual orientation. The desire for 'opt-outs' has also been challenged.
While many church groups have opposed the new Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs), the evangelical Faithworks network has called on Christians to recognise the need for equal treatment in spite of moral disagreement.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the independent Christian think tank Ekklesia, commented: "The comprehensive and integrated equalities agenda across Britain's public institutions is no threat to freedom of religion or tolerance. On the contrary, equal treatment is a cornerstone of fair access and open expression for all - including people of faith and those of non-religious outlook."
He added: "It is sad that some faith organisations seem fearful of equal rights, especially when it applies to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons. But there is a clear distinction to be made between the moral stipulations of a community of commitment, and the obligation on public institutions to ensure fair treatment. Religious bodies do not have to take public money, run schools and work in cooperation with community and public services. But if they do so, they need to occupy the same level playing field as others."
Ekklesia argues that the churches need to pay more attention to the "radically egalitarian" strand of the Gospel message in developing their response to public policy, rather than defending their institutional interests over and against others.
The Archbishops' Council response in full (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat file): http://www.cofe.anglican.org/info/papers/singleequalitybill.rtf