Humanists welcome equalities moves but warn on religious discrimination

By staff writers
June 27, 2008

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed the moves towards greater equality set out in the government’s Equality Bill White Paper - and has called for more action against discrimination by religious groups.

It urges caution against the potential of the measures unveiled yesterday by Harriet Harman to create unintended consequences, in particular in increased disadvantage for individuals while "groups" are being favoured.

Commenting on the latest government moves, Hanne Stinson, BHA Chief Executive, said: "Humanists are committed to the full implementation of human rights and equality for all and we look forward to working with the Government in the coming months to ensure that the Bill achieves this in practice."

She continued: "We welcome the White Paper which aims to extend and promote equality between different people. However, we must be very careful that some proposals, such as extending positive action in employment and the proposed additional public duty in relation to religion or belief, do not inadvertently increase discrimination against individuals based on actual or perceived affiliation to a group."

"We hope that the new law will also address existing problems of discrimination by religious organisations. Existing UK equality law gives religious groups power to discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs in both employment and service provision – even when they are receiving public funding – and this is one inequality that we look to the Government to address."

Among other proposals outlined in the White Paper, the BHA particularly welcomes the inclusion of a commitment to end the pay gap; allowing employment tribunals to make wider recommendations in discrimination cases; the commitment to allow discrimination cases to be brought on combined multiple grounds, and the commitment to consider representative actions.

It also warmly welcomes the ban on age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services, "but deeply regrets the exclusion of young people under the age of 18 from this protection."

Some civil rights lobbyists have been concerned - both domestically and internationally - about "collective rights" which can give cultural, social or religious concerns priority over the needs of specific persons.

"Clashes of rights" has also been an issue - with some churches and other faith groups claiming "religious rights" are being made secondary to rights based on sexual orientation, for example.

The opposite criticism is that the ideology of individualism should not be given automatic priority, according to some, over recognition of human embeddedness and strength derived from belonging to particular communities.

The issue has been a long standing philosophical, legal and political problem.

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