Representatives of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have told the House of Commons that they will fight to maintain their powers to discriminate in cases of employment and against limits proposed in the Equality Bill.
The two churches say they fear their "right" to discriminate on the basis of factors other than religion, would be "unreasonably" limited by the new Equality Bill.
But advocates of equality, including John Mason MP (a Baptist), the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) and a range of civic groups, human rights bodies and the Trades Union Congress say that the Bill needs strengthening in the interests of all and not for the self-interest of a few.
A parliamentary scrutiny committee took oral and written evidence last week, in advance of a clause-by-clause examination of the Bill, which is scheduled for completion by early July 2009.
Richard Kornicki of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and William Fittall, Secretary General of the Church of England's General Synod (the Established church's governing body) argued that the new definition in the Bill of “the purposes of organised religion” was a significant narrowing of the current law.
The definition is used to define circumstances in which religious organisations can apply existing exemptions relating to gender, marital status, and sexual orientation.
Catholic objectors have also raised the spectre of the "banning" of crucifixes in public places and circulating what others see as "scare stories" in order to whip up opposition to the Bill.
However, Vera Baird, the Solicitor-General, has disagreed strongly and publicly with the churches' premise that the definition of religion in the Bill amounts to a substantial change, reports Simon Sarmiento in the Church Times.
The Solicitor-General says that a “licence to discriminate” has necessarily to be extremely narrow in scope.
A representative of both churches on the Senior Stakeholders Group established by the Government Equalities Office has since confirmed that the new clause had never been discussed in that group.
Other organisations have supported the proposed definition and some have argued for even further clarity - including the TUC and the British Humanist Association.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "At times it seems as if advisors to the two largest churches in Britain are on a crash course with reality, with fairness, and with the very meaning of the Christian message itself when it comes to handling equality and diversity concerns. Negativity, self-interest and an instinct to exclude rather than welcome is turning more and more people away from institutional religion."
He added: "The churches do not seem to understand that inward-looking self-preservation is a self-defeating strategy. This is something the founder of Christianity declared very pointedly to his followers in the Gospel accounts. But the irony and poignancy of this still seems lost on some of his modern-day followers."
Ekklesia has published a briefing on the Equality Bill 2008-9 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9558), written by voluntary sector adviser and Christian commentator Savitri Hensman. The 'Thinking Anglicans' website is also monitoring developments closely and encouraging an open conversation about the issues involved (http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/003821.html).
"Many clergy, church community development workers and Christians involved in public life recognise that working for equality in the public square is an agenda that the churches can and should be embracing positively," added Simon Barrow. "However, their voices are often ignored or overlooked by those who serve official church bodies, whose jobs get reduced to defending a culture of privilege.
"As in the attempts to keep women out of ministry and the episcopate, the anti-equality, pro-discrimination stance is about preserving a club rather than developing a movement for change - which is what the Christian message actually invites."
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has announced that it will also hold hearings about the Equality Bill.
Ekklesia's Equality Bill briefing is here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9558
See also: 'Religion, belief and non-discrimination law' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8700), Ekklesia's briefing on definitions of religion and the provisions of the Equality Act 2006 / 2007 and other recent pieces of legislation.
Ekklesia is also a founding member of the community schools coalition Accord, which is involved in tabling amendments to the Bill. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmpublic/equality/memo...