The British Humanist Association (BHA) has said that the government should close the discrimination loopholes for religious organisations involved in public service provision, and should ensure that all services are fully inclusive.
The remarks came in response to the Government’s proposals for wide-ranging and extensive welfare reform, contracting out the welfare system to private and voluntary sector organisations, which is likely to include religious organisations.
Faith groups are increasingly the focus of the Government's plans for a "mixed economy" service sector, which some critics in the trade unions and elsewhere see as compromising the basic principles of the welfare state.
New Labour and the Tories, while differing on emphases, both increasingly see the role of government as 'commissioning' rather than providing, and believe that civil society groups of all shades should be involved in the 'new deal' on welfare.
But concerns have been raised from both secular and religious quarters about the impact of all of this.
Naomi Phillips, BHA Public Affairs Officer, noted that "over the last couple of years there has been a drive by the Government to increase greatly the number of religious organisations in the supply of welfare."
The BHA is happy to work with faith groups on common concerns, but is worried about this particular trend and wants to see a secular approach to welfare reform.
Ms Phillips explained: "Unlike other ‘third sector’ organisations, religious organisations have exemptions from equality legislation allowing them to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation and against those of the ‘wrong’ or no religion, even when working under contract to provide a public service. Moreover, unlike public bodies, contracted organisations are not bound by the Human Rights Act."
She continued: "All public services, funded by the tax payer, should be open and accessible to all, and be provided on a non-discriminatory basis. Increasing the number and influence of religious service providers in particular will jeopardise these principles, and the Government must take these issues seriously, before it hands over large parts of our welfare system to unrepresentative religious groups."
Ms Phillips added: "The BHA's recent report, ‘Quality and Equality’, on the contracting out of public services to religious organisations, calls for secular and inclusive services and recommends a more transparent tendering process for religious organisations contracted into public service supply and delivery. Government failure to close discrimination law loopholes which permit religious groups to discriminate seriously jeopardises the future of inclusive public services."
A recent report commissioned by the Church of England and written by academics from the Von Hugel Institite, a Catholic-sponsored research body at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, argued that churches have played a vital role in the social sector over the years, and that government has not properly understood this and has inadequate data on church involvement.
Moral, But No Compass which looks at voluntary activity as well as contracting in various forms, has provoked a further debate on the role of religious groups in services funded by the taxpayer and directed to all citizens.
The evangelical Faithworks Movement, which is heavily involved in contrcating, has produced a widely-praised Charter (recently presented to the Prime Minister) which calls for Christian groups to be non-discriminatory, principled and non-proselytising in the way that they operate.
But there is concern about the large number of church and other faith groups who do not subscribe to these principles, the widespread religious opposition to the 2007 Sexual Orientation Regulations, and the fact that the Charter talks about compliance with current legislation - which still includes exemptions that concern others in the third sector and public institutions.
The religion and society think tank Ekklesia has expressed concerns about the 'new deal' government and faith bodies are striking on service provision.
Co-director Simon Barrow commented recently: "Particular churches, faith organisations, businesses, charities and other private providers - whether religious or not - should not be given unaccountable dominance over large chunks of public services paid for by the general taxpayer. That would be an unhealthy state of affairs for all involved."
"Partnership between the state, voluntary groups and other actors in welfare provision needs to be genuine, transparent and rooted in the overwhelming needs of the vulnerable, a comprehensive equalities agenda, an end to unfair exemptions, and a more careful review of the way the 'commissioning state' really works and what it can and cannot deliver," he added.